The First Communist Groups in India

Almost simultaneously with but quite independently of the formation of a communist centre in Soviet Russia, the first communist elements and groups sprang up in India during 1921-22. These were:

(1) The Bombay group around Sripad Amrit Dange, who published his Gandhi Vs. Lenin in mid-1921. Dange was then one among a group of student leaders just rusticated from Bombay’s Wilson College, which they had earlier boycotted as part of the non-cooperation movement. Based on very scanty information about Lenin and Russia available at the time and penned by a 21-year old who was then just transforming himself, in his own words, from “Tilak’s chela” (meaning disciple) to “Lenin’s chela[1], it is full of errors both in theory and in facts. This will be evident even from the short excerpt we have reproduced in Text VI1, which presents the central theme of the book. But to students of communist history the value of the book rests not so much in its content as in its background and, therefore, in the follow-up. It appeared in the course of a debate, among politicised student circles in Bombay and for that matter elsewhere too, as to what should be the correct path for India’s emancipation; and it remains the best available historical documentation of the very first phase in a generation’s ideological transformation. This is proved also by the fact that after the publication of Gandhi Vs. Lenin, Dange and his friends engaged themselves in trade union activities and evolved into one of the earliest communist circles in India and began publishing the Socialist, the first communist journal in India, from August 1922.

(2) The Calcutta group around Muzaffar Ahmad, a young man who did not participate in the non-cooperation movement but published, for a few months in late 1920, a Uterary-cum-militant nationalist journal in Bengali named Navyug (New Age) together with the firebrand Bengali poet Nazrul Islam. Towards the end of 1921 Ahmad bought a few books by Lenin and on Marx from the first secret consignment of such books to Calcutta and from the next year started organising the workers in Metiabruz and other industrial centres near Calcutta.

(3) The Madras group around Singaravelu M Chettiar, a middle-aged Congressman already active on the working class front when he embraced Marxism. He played a very active role at the Gaya session of the Congress (end of December 1922) and founded the Labour Kishan Party of Hindustan in 1923.

(4) The Lahore group around Ghulam Hussain, who used to teach economics at a Peshawar college and was brought towards Marxism by his friend Mohammad ali, one of the founder members of “CPI” at Tashkent, in 1922. After this he left the job, went to Lahore, started work in the Railway Workers’ Union there and edited the Urdu paper Inquilab, only a few issues of which were published.

How was it that all these groups came up in literally the four comers of India just within one year, as if by some grand design ? The fact is that they were totally ignorant of each other and, barring Ghulam Hussain, of the activities of MN Roy or Comintern. Their development was conditioned by a peculiar combination of historical circumstances — of two internal factors and one external impulse: (i) the contradiction between Gandhian ideology and politics on the one hand and the revolutionary sweep of class struggle and national liberation movement on the other; (ii) the new stage in Indian working class movement both in quantitative and qualitative terms; and (iii) the international appeal of the October Revolution.

Note :

1. As if to symbolise this, the cover page highlights a militant quote of Tilak from the swadeshi period – not one of Marx or Lenin !

Of these three, the first was the most fundamental. The compromising character of the Congress and the fact that it was basically a party of the rich unconcerned with everyday problems of the working people was already known, but it was during the non-cooperation-Khilafat movement and thereafter that the said contradiction manifested itself most sharply. Numerous incidents — e.g., Gandhi’s clear verdict in early 1921 that strikes “do not fall within the plan of non-violent non-cooperation”[2], his urgent directive to stop the no-tax campaign started by Congressmen in Guntur (now in Andhra Pradesh) (under pressure form below and also due to a misinformation that the leadership had already signalled such a campaign) and so on — led to the emergence of three parallel critiques of Gandhism. One was from within the bourgeois camp — this concerned the question of expediency, tactics and timing. CR Das and the senior Nehru felt, for instance, that the Congress should have accepted the British peace gestures during the visit of Prince of Wales in return for some constitutional gains and they were angry because Gandhi, after refusing all compromise at that opportune moment, later beat a retreat suddenly and empty-handed. Another was by the petty-bourgeois terrorist-patriots, who either supported the non-cooperation-Khilafat movement or at least suspended their activities during this period but strove to return to the ‘bomb polities’ after the movement collapsed. The third critique was fundamental, striving to be consistent and informed by socialist ideals. Whereas the first critique forever remained within the bounds of Congress ideology and politics and the second never involved the masses, the third — best represented by communists who emerged from among the Congress activists such as Dange and Singaravelu — strove to develop a total alternative. From the very outset this critique based itself on the growing clash between the conservative bourgeois leadership and the popular forces it had activised, but its beginnings bore the inevitable birth-marks: both the first communist pamphlet in India (Gandhi Vs. Lenin) and the first communist speech at a Congress session (Gaya, 1922 — by Singaravelu) accepted non-violence as an effective method in Indian conditions[3]. In time the socialist critique came into its own, but this could be achieved not simply by subjective theoretical exercises — an objective social force capable of completing this transformation was crucially needed.

And this was available in the second factor. The working class in India had, by 1921-22, already established itself both as a front-ranking detachment of the national movement (though without a programme of its own) and as a formidable fighter against the exploitation and injustice meted out to it as a class. Naturally the new Marxists everywhere turned to work among this class and found there the social vehicle for communism. By this act they took the crucial next step in their ideological remoulding, differentiating themselves substantially and effectively from all shades of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois critiques of Gandhism and thus started laying the real foundation of a communist movement. But for a certain minimum development of the working class in India, all this would have been hardly possible. This necessary proletarian dimension, however, suffered from a basic weakness : the lack of serious work among the struggling peasantry. This weakness lingered on into the 1930s and deprived the working class of its crucial mass ally — the toiling peasantry — and thereby permanently disabled it to snatch the leadership of the national liberation movement from the bourgeoisie. We shall elaborate on this most crucial lacuna of the communist movement in Part VI.

About the third factor, the important thing to note is this. The anti-imperialist appeal of the Bolshevik Revolution was welcomed by all working people and even by sections of the propertied classes, but its social content was grasped only by the Marxists — the ideologues of the working class. While the responses of all others were emotional and superficial, only the working class acquired and assimilated from the land of Soviets its philosophy of life and proceeded to build the political party of its own in that light.

So these are the three sources of the communist movement in India. It is definitely wrong to ignore any of these, as the Preamble to the Constitution of CPI (1958)[4] does by failing to mention the second, i.e., the proletarian class element.

Notes :

2. Young India, 16 February 1921. In the same magazine Gandhi wrote on 15 June, 1921: “In India we want no political strikes … we must gain control over all the unruly and disturbing elements …”

3. At an earlier date the birth-marks were even more conspicuous. As Sumit Sarkar informs us, Singaravelu wrote an open letter to Gandhi on 5 May, 1921, where he condemned the brakes Gandhi was imposing on Kishan movements, urged the use of non-violent non-cooperation against “capitalistic autocracy” and suggested a rather eclectic “Communism” which would include the Charkha, through which “each and every household in the land could become independent of an employer. …, (Modern India, op. cit., P 214)

4. “The Communist Party of India arose in the course of our liberation struggle as a result of the efforts of Indian revolutionaries, who under the inspiration of the Great October Revolution were seeking new paths for achieving national independence.”