Thursday, February 18, 2016

Book Review: Sankar Ray on Sobhanlal Datta Gupta's 'Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India'

Sobhanlal Datta Gupta; Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India: 1919-1943 Dialectics of Real and a Possible History
Second Revised and Enlarged Edition; 2011 
Reviewed by Sankar Ray

History is a slaughterhouse – G W F Hegel

But for the suppression of Communist International documents from the post-Lenin years, the subsequent series of splits and divisions among the world’s communist parties might have been nipped in the bud. This dynamic cannot be blamed on the then-head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Nikita Khrushchev, whose controversial ‘secret speech’ to a closed session of the 20th Congress of CPSU in 1956 denounced Josef Stalin for the personality cult he had fostered, and for his reprisals against those who differed from him politically and ideologically.

The ‘secret speech’ was not the only point at which the 20th Congress saw a departure from Stalin’s ideas. On the opening day of the Congress, Stalin had presented a report on behalf of the CPSU’s central committee that interpreted the party’s ideology so as to allow for peaceful transitions to socialism, and for the extension of an olive branch to ‘bourgeois nationalist’ parties such as the Indian National Congress. Such interpretations seemed to suggest a return to the ideals of Vladimir Lenin, from whom Stalinist ideology had made a sharp departure. Following the Congress, CPSU veterans who had collaborated with Stalin launched an inner-party offensive against some of the major conclusions in the report. The seeds of a schism were thus sown that were to quickly grow into a global phenomenon – one of particular importance to the Third World.

Until the opening of the Communist International (Comintern) archives in 1987, historians had to depend mostly on the Comintern journal, Imprecor, to try and understand these inner workings. Since then, however, researchers have been able to uncover a mountain of information about the Comintern’s actions around the world, including in India. University of Calcutta political scientist Sobhanlal Datta Gupta’s new Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India, 1919-1943 – which also makes use of the archives of the Communist Party of Great Britain and of the private collections of a communist veteran – is a path-breaking contribution in this genre. In particular, it gives new insights on revisions of the CPSU’s position on the so-called ‘colonial question’ – its stance on the struggle for liberation from imperialism. For students of the history of the process of national liberation in the Subcontinent, this is exciting material.

At the Comintern’s Second Congress, in 1920, Lenin’s Theses on National and Colonial Questions was accepted after a lively debate on the comparative merits of two drafts, Lenin’s and the alternative Supplementary Thesis, drafted by the Bengali communist M N Roy. In his thesis, Lenin asked the communists of the Third World to forge a “temporary alliance” with the bourgeoisie in the colonies for the sake of the fight against imperialism, even while maintaining an “independent class role” so as not to lose ideological orientation. Lenin argued that the bourgeoisie in colonies such as India had two roles – one of conflict against colonial rule, and another of compromise with it. Roy, a man Datta Gupta describes as being of “ultra-left orientation”, disagreed with Lenin, saying, “The salvation of India doesn’t lie in the nationalist movement” and that there could be no cohabitation with the colonial bourgeoisie. Lenin’s democratic mindset allowed Roy’s thesis to be accepted as well, after substantial modifications.

During his research, Datta Gupta found that six months after Lenin’s death in January 1924, Stalin revived Roy’s Supplementary Thesis, essentially shelving Lenin’s thesis. Though he had been silent at the Second Congress, Stalin now rephrased the Roy’s work so as to rule out any acceptance of native nationalists such as the Indian National Congress as anti-colonial forces. It thus becomes clear how Stalin, in the name of Leninism, led a clean departure from Lenin’s approach to communism. Datta Gupta quotes Stalin’s heretofore-unknown comments on M N Roy’s draft: “I believe that the time has come to raise the question of the hegemony of the proletariat in the liberation struggle in the colonies such as India, whose bourgeoisie is conciliatory [with British imperialism],” emphasising that the victory over the conciliatory bourgeoisie was the main condition for liberation from imperialism. This was a prelude to the so-called Colonial Thesis that came out of the Sixth Congress in 1929, in which the Comintern, led by Stalin, decided that the Indian bourgeoisie had surrendered to imperialism, and would therefore have no role in the freedom struggle.

After 1989, those who felt the urge to insulate themselves from the hangover of ‘official Marxism’ – the official, Stalinist Soviet ideology of the post-Lenin years – were grateful to the CPSU leadership for opening up the Comintern archives, itself a decision that came out of the glasnost of the Gorbachev period. A milestone in post-1987 research on the Comintern era was a 1992 conference, attended by Datta Gupta, called ‘The Communist International and its National Sections’, held in the Netherlands. For the longtime Comintern researcher, the conference was a watershed. It was here that Datta Gupta first began to fathom what it would be to explore the wealth of the Comintern repository, an opportunity afforded him three years later with an offer from the Asiatic Society in Calcutta.

In November 2002, at a seminar hosted by Manchester University, Datta Gupta presented a paper called “The Comintern and the Hidden History of Indian Communism”. Here he proposed, “It is now possible to reconstruct the secret – the untold – history of Indian communism by arguing that during the Comintern period, beneath the layer of the official version, there was an unofficial, suppressed, alternative discourse of Indian communism, unrecognised and unknown until now.” His comments referred most importantly to the ideas of the ‘Berlin group’ of Indian revolutionaries, represented by Virendranath Chattopadhyay, Maulana Barakatullah and Bhupendranath Dutt. 

In a document submitted to the Comintern, Datta Gupta writes, these thinkers suggested “an alternative understanding of the strategy of anti-imperialist struggle, which was sharply different from Roy’s position in the sense that they looked upon nationalism from a positive angle and considered India primarily as an agrarian country.” The Berlin group’s ideas were not taken up, however, and probably did not reach Lenin – something that Comintern giants such as Grigory Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky and Roy himself worked to ensure. 

Official Soviet ideology had massive sway on the workings of the world’s communist parties. The Communist Party of India (CPI), too, blindly accepted the ‘Russification’ of Comintern and its imposition on its ‘sections’ (affiliate communist parties) such that the sections became completely subservient, despite dissension from European parties. Lenin himself had sensed this problem. In his report to Comintern’s Fourth Congress (1922), he praised the resolution on the organisational structure as “excellent”, but curtly added, “It is almost entirely Russian”.

Material from the Comintern archives seems to have unnerved the one-million-strong Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI (M). The CPI (M)’s erstwhile general secretary, Harkishan Singh Surjeet, wrote in the party’s journalThe Marxist in 1996 that the Sixth Congress’s Colonial Thesis “bore a definite shade of sectarianism”. But one of the arguments for splitting the CPI – and the subsequent creation of the CPI (M) – was the endorsement of the same: those who had been readying for the 1964 split had supported the Sixth Congress thesis on the colonies as it helped them to refute the ‘reformist’ CPI’s tacit support to Nehruvians.

Nonagenarian communist theoretician Narahari Kaviraj recently recalled to this reviewer an episode in Calcutta’s Dum Dum Jail that took place after the start of the 1962 Indo-Chinese war. That conflict had bitterly divided the CPI between those who blamed either China or India as the aggressor. “We asked Muzaffar Ahmed, aka Kakababu, the oldest communist, to take a party class [ie, a lesson in politics and ideology]. When Kakababu defended Stalin’s characterisation of the Indian bourgeoisie, I asked what he thought of [Bulgarian Comintern leader Georgi] Dimitrov’s thesis, which recommended a united front with the Indian National Congress against fascism. He only reiterated his stand.” Ahmed had considered Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose to be reactionary and pro-imperialist. His jail-time assertion of the Sixth Congress line was therefore consistent. Not long afterwards, he and other like-minded CPI members split to form the CPI (M), a party that stuck to Stalinist ideology.

The Indian communist movement suffered due to a blind adherence to Stalin and Stalinism that led to a poor, sectarian understanding of the national freedom movement and the Indian National Congress. Marxism-Leninism, the CPI failed to note, is based on dialectical logic: real change is understood to come about through a struggle between opposing forces – not by rigid adherence to a single, predetermined path. In Marxism, revolutionary perspective is constructed through a balanced combination of internationalism and national specifics; no two successful revolutions are similar. 

Stalin’s understanding of dialectics was shallow and one-sided. It is of little surprise, then, that a CPI that was carried away by Stalinism came to make formulations and analyses that seem quaint and dangerous today. A ludicrous brand of sectarianism throttled the ‘revolutionary possibilities’ of the Subcontinent. The Comintern archives strongly suggest that many socialist states failed due to adherence to an official Marxism created during the Stalin period. Through studies such as Datta Gupta’s, the opening of the archives now provides an opportunity to salvage Marxism from ‘official Marxism’, which the international communist movement has still been unable to overcome.

Extracts from the review by Mike Jones
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.

Also see:

Book review: new biography of Stalin Reviewed by Donald Rayfield