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Communism in India


Sobhanlal Datta Gupta
Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India 1919–1943
Seribaan, Kolkata 2006, pp. 329

THE author is a professor of political science at Calcutta University, a historian of Marxist ideas, as well as of the movement inspired by them. His sympathies lie, however, not with officialdom and its interpretation of the movement’s history, but with the critical evaluations produced since the archives became more accessible, and the dissenting, even oppositional, figures who advanced alternative strategies and programmes. In this spirit the author set to work examining Indian communism during the life of the Comintern. In the course of a decade’s research he used, among many other sources, the archives of the Comintern (Moscow), the CPGB (Manchester), and valuable collections of a noted GDR scholar and an anonymous Indian communist leader. In the preface Sobhanlal Datta Gupta (henceforth SDG) describes his task as having been “challenging”, due to the left in India being “still heavily dominated by the spirit of Stalinism”, but hopes that, by attempting “to understand the moments of crisis which communism in India has encountered and examining the possible alternatives”, the book will “encourage critical thinking and thus assist the left in finding a way forward”. (p. xx)

The first chapter sets out key issues for investigation vis-à-vis Comintern and the new historiography, and SDG points out that prior to the opening of the archives to Soviet scholars in 1987, and internationally in 1991, it was not possible to make an objective evaluation of the Comintern, one had the official view on one hand, or ones tending to subjective judgements, as evidence was lacking. Initially critical scholars attempting to reassess Comintern were met with resistance both in Russia and the GDR. The Stalin-Hitler Pact, the sectarian line towards social democracy, the repression meted out to political emigrants in the USSR, for example, investigated by the likes of F. Firsov and A. Vatlin, threatened to undermine the SED’s fundamentals. While party historians tried to shore-up the Stalinist view, it was Kurt Hager of all people, the SED’s chief ideologue, who came out for a reassessment. This encouraged Erwin Lewin to reassess the Comintern and the Pact, which “had led to severe downplaying of anti-fascist propaganda ... seriously hamper(ing) the resistance of the KPD … since not fascism, but British imperialism and its accomplice, namely, the leadership of Social Democracy, came to be targeted as the main forces responsible for the war”. (p. 11)

Assorted opinions on how to periodise the Comintern’s history are examined, the question of how much autonomy the parties enjoyed, the role of the Cadre Department, which was “an organ of surveillance … act(ing) in close coordination with the ECCI and the NKVD” (p. 21), the Russification process that meant decisions being first taken in the WKP(b) Politbureau. The process was possible, SDG informs us, resting upon a Russian source, “because no democratically conceived procedure for elections to the posts of Chairman, Secretary, General Secretary, members of the ECCI and the Presidium of the ECCI existed and their functions also were not clearly defined in the rules”. (p. 22) In discussing the repression in the Comintern, in which the ECCI was complicit, SDG refers to the resistance to it, which in my opinion was too little too late, and alternatives. The Pact, the Comintern’s dissolution, Stalin’s letter on Bolshevism’s history, are all brought in to the discussion prior to SDG going on to Indian communism vis-à-vis the new historiography.

Besides the Comintern archives, those of the CPGB provide a vital source for elaborating a reliable history of communism in India, as from the late 1920s it was through the CPGB that the Comintern related to the CPI, and from the mid-30s, India was represented in the Comintern officially by Ben Bradley, the other leading personality … in this connection being R. Palme Dutt. (pp. 35/6)

Apart from the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, which has begun an ambitious publishing project on Indo-Russian relations, in collaboration with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, SDG regards the response to the possibilities opened up by the access to these priceless archives as “dismal, if not puzzling”, characterised by “a strange apathy, if not resistance, towards exploration of this area”. (p. 36) In fact, “after the opening or the archives, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the leading party of the mainstream Left in India today, has published several volumes and commentaries containing documents on the history of Indian communism in the Comintern period (without reference to the archives or new research), resulting in a simple repeat of the official version of Party history ...” (p. 37)

M.N. Roy was the dominant figure vis-à-vis Comintern and Indian communism until the late 1920s, and helped shape policy on the National Question, but in his research SDG has been able to flesh out the views of other Indian currents that were not so dismissive of mainstream nationalism in India, namely, the Indian Revolutionary association located in Tashkent, and the grouping in Berlin. The former insisted that a proletarian revolution under CP leadership was not just around the corner in India, and that one had to take into account not just of nationalism(s) but religion, caste and community. Neither could one gain influence by pure hostility to Gandhi. The Berlin group favoured an anti-imperialist front perspective uniting communists and non-communist revolutionaries.

SDG was also able to find materials relating to the political and military training of Indian revolutionaries in Soviet Russia and the key role played by the Soviet Embassy in Kabul in transporting them back to India. Amir Amanullah of Afghanistan was friendly disposed towards Soviet Russia, and his relations with Britain were strained. The break-up of empires, emergence of new states; wars in the Caucasus, the Bolshevik appeal to Muslim and oriental peoples, all helped create fear regarding India. This led to literature from or about Soviet Russia or Lenin being seized at special checkposts set up all over India. Indian communists residing in Russia during the purges suffered from the terror, and SDG found out what had happened to prominent figures.

With the exit of M.N. Roy from Comintern in 1929, the CPGB became de-facto guardian of the CPI, and SDG examines the reason why no Indian was entrusted with Indian affairs there. This was problematic from the start, he discovered, as the CPGB, was, as were European parties in general, “Eurocentric”, and seemed to be indifferent to the colonial question, and moreover, tended to “boss” Indian communists. Documents were found from the 20s to the 40s in which CP leaders express exasperation at an “empire consciousness” present within the ranks of the party, whereby the plight of India was absent from their minds. One can imagine the existence of such a consciousness within the working class in general, perhaps among some party members, but I doubt that it was a common feature. Surely communists would have faced great difficulties advancing policies opposed to British imperialism, perhaps they chose to prioritise other matters and put India on the back-burner, The private papers of both Palme Dutt and Bradley confirm their vehement hostility towards Gandhi, continuing a line set out by Roy, which harmed the CPI. It turns out that the CPGB maintained a close link with Jawaharlal Nehru during the late 30s and 40s.

The ultra-left line imposed by the Comintern following the adoption of the programme in 1928, and its consequences for India, is also examined. The orientation for the colonies set out in his time by Lenin, and elaborated at the 4th Congress into the anti-imperialist united front, was junked and all nationalist forces were denounced as henchmen of imperialism, particularly those on the left. Not only Gandhi but Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose were labelled “agents of British imperialism”. Crazy instructions were sent to the CPI which, at that time, barely existed as a party.

Comintern directives, SDG discovered, were not as hitherto believed, accepted uncritically by the CPI, and if the ultra-left line created problems, the shift following the 7th Congress of Comintern in 1935, proved difficult to gain acceptance, as the previous line, it was insisted, was not an error. With the Nazi-German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, WW2 underwent a change of character, the CPI had to be convinced to stop opposing British imperialism, which had ceased to be the most malign force on the planet, but to support this ally of the Soviet Union. This would have enormous repercussions for the CPI. These bizarre zig-zags of the Comintern seem to be all the more grotesque when imposed on the CP of a colony struggling for independence.

The book is divided into six chapters, the last of which discusses oppositional currents within the Comintern and what could have been, based on SDG’s analysis of the new research. For what it is worth I would agree with his general conclusions. The book has all the necessary scholarly attributes, including a bibliography and an index, and for ease the notes follow each chapter. There is an enormous amount of material packed into this study, of which I have only been able to give a flavour. It broadens our knowledge of the Comintern, Indian communism and the CPGB, as well as the relationship between them. One can only hope that the book gets a wider readership in India, where the communist movement is still an important political force, which could benefit from the knowledge contained within if discussed in an open fashion.

Mike Jones


Lenin pooh-poohed Rosa Luxemburg, Stalin vilified her as did official Marxists for decades

Sankar Ray

Rosa Luxemburg whom Franz Mehring called “the best brain after Marx in socialist movement” after the death of Marx remained protractedly maligned for over half a century by Josef Stalin and his sidekicks in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party — subsequently rechristened as the Communist Party of Soviet Union (Bolshevik) and thereafter CPSU — was the ‘ideologue’ of “Luxemburgism” and counter-revolutionary strain of Menshevism. Dr William A Pelz blasted “Luxemburgism “ as “clumsy, cynical and self- serving parody on the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg” at the International Rosa Luxemburg Conference — Internationale Rosa-Luxemburg-Gesellschaft (IRLS) — in Tokyo (April 2007). It was the sixth such conference. The first such meet took place in Chicago in 1998. Last year, Seoul was the venue of the IRLC which is organised by the International Rosa Luxemburg Society (IRLS) that aims at demolition of tendentious ‘Luxemburgism’ and restoration of theoretical and practical struggle, initiated by Luxemburg. The rediscovery of Luxemburg — Another Luxemburgism is possible: Reflections on Rosa and the Radical Socialist Project, the title of Dr Pelz’s paper — could be congenial after the fall of ‘Official Marxism’ (sadly with the fall of Soviet Union).

Dr Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, formerly Surendranath Banerjee Chair of political science, University of Calcutta, who has attended every IRLS since 1998 and an internationally reputed research scholar on the international communist movement, has done yet another commendable work, The Socialist Vision and The Silenced Voices of Democracy — New Perspectives — Part I, Rosa Luxemburg (Seriban, Bakhrahat, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, Rs495), a 137-page book, packed with reference to source materials which will help scholars engaged in research on Luxemburg. Gupta is at work for the next two books under this series: one on Nikolai Bukharin and another on György Lukács.

“Freedom” Luxemburg wrote famously in the Marxian spirit, “is always the freedom of those who think differently”. Unlike Bolsheviks, including Lenin, she had stuck unflinchingly to the ‘Hegelian-Marxian’ trait in contrast to ‘ultra-centralism’ of RSDLP, the ruling party (after the Bolshevik Revolution) under Lenin. She did her best to rid ‘Marxism’ or Marxian temper of what Robert Locker described as ‘organisational fetishism’, leading to ossification of the RSDLP due to ‘purely mechanistic fashion’ of running the party and the governmental power during Lenin’s lifetime. Luxemburg was compelled to criticise Lenin’s (Trotsky’s too) ‘organisational centralism’. She differed profoundly with Lenin’s aberrant experiment of vanguard role of the party that Marx never prescribed.

Gupta’s advantage was his almost six month research at the archive of the Communist International (Third International or Comintern) in Moscow after it was declassified during the last years of Gorbachev era. He published a seminal work, Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India — Dialectics of Real and Possible History, which was translated into German and Malayalam. The present treatise is split into six sequentially built chapters: New Historiography, Vision of Socialism and Democracy and Spontaneity contra Centralism of Luxemburg, Internationalism of Communism and Destiny of Rosa Luxemburg and Rosa Luxemburg and the World Today. His identification of Rosa as ‘ a heretic, a revolutionary with a difference and so remained a constant threat to all those who felt it safe not to question the claims of official Marxism’ guides a reader to understand the meaning of Dr Pelz’s paper ‘Another Luxemburgism is possible’.

Her real name was Rozalia Luksenburg, born in 1871, into a Polish family of secular Jews in a small city in Russian-occupied Poland. How brutally she was killed on January 15, 1919, as a sequel to the abortive bid of her party Independent Socialist Party of Germany (USPD) to overthrow the Ebert-Scheidemann government is well known. Stalin embarked on abusive vilification of her theoretical contributions 12 years thereafter through his infamous letter ‘On Some Questions Concerning the History of Bolshevism’, published in Proletarskaia Revoliutsiia (1931). He blamed Rosa for ‘counterrevolutionary Menshevism’, a tendentious accusation. Instantaneously, Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s enemy number one, lashed out at him with a sharp polemical essay, Hands off Rosa Luxemburg.

The wilful abuse against Luxemburg remained unchanged even after the Stalin period. Which was why Annelies Laschitza, the outstanding biographer of Luxemburg, had to submit the manuscript within the bureaucratic frame, set out by the central committee of erstwhile Socialist Unity Party of now-defunct German Democratic Republic, although she and Gunter Radczuan jointly headed the project for Rosa’s biography. “From her own testimony it is now evident that there were vast gaps, distortions, if not falsifications, in the name of Leninism”, noted Gupta. Laschitza’s keynote address, Encountering Rosa Luxemburg-Past and Present, at a symposium, organised by the Berlin-based Institute of History of Working Class in March 1989 is ‘a fascinating analysis’, he adds. Laschitza criticised Lenin for loose comments on the great revolutionary in his Notes of a Publicist’( November 1922), ‘without actually reading it’.

Gupta’s paper Understanding Socialism as Hegemony: Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin at the Tokyo conference of IRLS (2007) is an original contribution. Bukharin was closer to Luxemburg than Antonio Gramsci and György Lukács, Gupta observed. Bukharin wrote poignantly: “A static and tranquillised attitude is a trait that grows out of parasitism… The active and creative quality of socialist culture results in an ever-renewed growth of both material and spiritual needs, in which the latter develop into actual passions”.

Bukharin thought of ‘new man’ in socialist or communist society like Rosa. Official Marxism never thought alike. However, the new revelations about Luxemberg are mostly in German. Out of her 900-plus letters, edited by Laschitza, Georg Adler and, Peter Hudis, less than 250 have been translated into English. We hope IRLS will look into the matter.

The author is a veteran journalist, specialising in Left politics, history and environmental issues



Brightening firmament of Rosa Luxemburg

Charubrata Ray

The new scholastic interest in Rosa Luxemburg and her theoretical contributions, especially among Marx scholars,  not only in Europe but in China and Japan as well, is in sync with collapse of official Marxism, which is hardly expected to be restored. This serves as a catalyst to the gigantic post-USSR  international project, Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe or complete works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (MEGA) that has fired great expectations in Marx scholars, genuinely yearning for the hitherto ‘unexplored Marx’.

MEGA is a collation of original texts of ’the historical-critical edition of works of Marx and Engels’, a task ignored by official Marxists during the 20th century.  Fifty-nine out of 114 volumes, have been published though the efforts to rid them of the tendentious misinterpretation of Luxemburg preceded MEGA by about two decades.

While the scholars for repositioning of Luxemburg  are grateful to the famous Hungarian Marxist, Georg Lukacs and  Gunter Rasczun of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic — both were with the reigning communist parties — the pace-setter was  Lelio Basso of Italy, together with  Fellix Tych, neither associated with official Marxist circles. Basso, a social democrat, was arrested  in Milan in 1928  and interned in the island of Ponza for three years during the Mussolini regime. Tych, a Polish Jewish historian, studied history in Warsaw and Moscow and was ostracized by the anti-Jewish rulers of Poland in 1968.

Tych (who died in 2015) edited a three-volume set of correspondence of Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Jogiche in the early 1970s. Basso (who died in 1978) convened an international conference on “The Contribution of Rosa Luxemburg to the Development Of Marxist Ideas” in Italy in 1973. It was a turning point and Basso wished that the Japanese scholar, Narihiko Ito, shoulder the task of restoration of “Another ‘Luxemburgism”, the title of a paper by  Dr William A. Pelz at the Tokyo conference under the aegis of the International Rosa Luxemburg Society — Internationale Rosa Luxemburg Gesellschaft — in 2009’), ending ‘Luxemburgism’ (coined by Grigory Zinoviev and endorsed by Josef Stalin in the mid 1920s) as counter-revolutionary strain of Menshevism. This Stalinist stigma was aptly termed as “clumsy, cynical and self- serving parody on the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg”. The IRLS was set up as a network for  this research in 1980 with Prof Ito at the helm in Zurich.  

Prof Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, formerly Surendranath Banerjee Chair of political science at the University of Calcutta, attended the Tokyo conference. An eminent scholar on the international communist movement of the period of Communist International (Comintern), Datta Gupta has been associated with the IRLS and participated at every conference, the last having  been held in Seoul last year. He deserves accolades for his latest work, *The Socialist Vision and The Silenced Voices of Democracy – New Perspectives – Part I, Rosa Luxemburg.  It is a slim 137-page book but packed with reference to source materials that will help scholars, especially on Luxemburg (although mostly in German). He is currently working on Nikolai Bukharin and Georg Lukacs, for the next two books in this series.

Rosa Luxemburg had profound differences with Vladimir Lenin mainly on socialism and the role of party. She wrote in the programme of Spartacus League that the socialist revolution “is in the interests of the great majority and can be brought to victory only by the great majority of the working people themselves. The mass of the proletariat must do more than stake out clearly the aims and direction of the revolution”.

One is reminded of Marx’s words at the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864: “The emancipation of the working class is the tasks of workers themselves”, not by ‘professional revolutionaries” (Bolsheviks), assigned by Lenin on behalf of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (rechristened as the Communist Party of Soviet Union). With an indirect dig at the RSDLP’s ultra-centralism, she quipped ‘socialism will not be and cannot be inaugurated  by decrees”. Luxemburg criticized the dissolution of Duma and wanted it to co-exist with the Soviets. Her immortal statement, “Freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently”, is  a never-failing inspiration to those who adhere to the Marxian temper.

The first biography of Luxemburg was written by a Japanese scholar, Yamagawa Kikuei, in 1922 and later translated into Chinese, SDG reveals. The first biography in German, by Robert Evzerov and I. S. Yashborovskaya, was published five decades later and that too under the monitoring by the partyocracy, a hangover of Stalinism that survived his death in the USSR and CPSU. The ‘most outstanding’ biographer of Luxemburg, however, is Annelies Laschitza, says Datta Gupta, albeit in German. 

The author agrees that the new titles and papers on Luxemburg after the Herculean effort by IRLS should be translated from German texts. At the Tokyo conference of the IRLS (2007)  SDG  highlighted in a paper, Understanding Socialism in Hegemony: Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin  (English version) Bukharin’s gravitation towards ‘new man’ in socialist or communist society in his twilight hours years, collinearly with Rosa Luxemburg. Bukharin, SDG says, snapped fingers at the ‘static and tranquilized attitude as a trait that grows out of parasitism’. The active and creative quality of socialist culture results in an ever-renewed growth of both material and spiritual needs, in which the latter develop into actual passions, as Bukharin believed.  But was it indirectly an atonement for his aberrant antecedents during his factional equation with Stalin against Leon Trotsky? In the Politics and Economics of the Transition Period (1920) Bukharin spoke of ‘concentrated violence, mooted a new labour framework’ for ‘state coercion’. Luxemburg, on the contrary wrote in 1918: “The proletarian revolution has no need for terror. It does not fight against individuals but against institutions”. Luxemburg did stick to her anathema to suppression of dissent and in the in the same year expressed her annoyance with the ‘reports of arrest or execution of hundreds of Left Socialist Revolutionaries by the Bolsheviks, in a letter to Julian Marchlewski, quoted by the author: “One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing” but she did not publicly state this for tactical reasons.    

SDG  also introduces readers to brilliant scholars like Ottokar Luban (historian and IRLS secretary), Peter Hudis, Gabriel Kuhn and several others  inspiring readers to delve deeper into the life and works of an all-time great Marxist thinker and activist. It is refreshing to note that new texts are being translated into English. Equally salutary is Datta Gupta’s gesture of dedication to the centurion, Theodor Bergmann, ’probably the longest-standing communist activist in the world’. 

*The Socialist Vision and The Silenced Voices of Democracy – New Perspectives – Part I, Rosa Luxemburg by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta  (pp 137 + xiv) Seriban, Bakhrahat, South 24 Parganas district, West Bengal, Rs 495 
Link to DNAhttp://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-a-rebel-s-rebel-2196598

May 9, 2016