By Suryashekhar Biswas – Nov 8, 2021
In 1917, the worker-peasant alliance in economically-backward Russia began the formation of the first state in the world that truly belonged to the hardworking masses. The Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin, displayed to the whole world that it was possible for ordinary people to achieve self-determination. With counter-revolutionaries, loyalists, monarchists and revivalists attempting to purge Russia from within and imperialists waging war from outside, the tale the first “Really Existing Socialism” began under circumstances of great challenge. Nonetheless, the red star had begun to shine. Its light extended beyond the borders of the USSR, through Eastern Europe, all the way to the colonised third-world. Mired in the tactics of internationalism and world-socialism, the successful revolution offered its amicable hands to its toiling comrades of the third-world, who were struggling against the excesses of imperialism.
Before going further, it is important to note that communism in India had its origins in the material conditions of India, in its process of historical development, and its efforts to resolve the contradictions of British imperialism on the one hand, and feudal landlordism on the other. Communism in India was not a formula implanted into the minds of people by bureaucrats sitting in Moscow, as certain right-wing ideologues claim. That being said, the Bolshevik Revolution and the worker’s state it established, had a profound impact on the Indians grappling with their reality, and also provided them some theoretical frameworks.
The national and colonial questions, as they were called, were not peripheral ponderings that arbitrarily occurred in the minds of the Third International revolutionaries. For Lenin, and many others, national liberation and the anti-colonial struggle was central to the process of overthrowing capitalism. This extends from the idea that imperialism was integral for capitalism to function – which was to become Lenin’s core thesis in ‘Imperialism – The Highest Stage of Capitalism’. These revolutionaries found it preposterous that many communists of the colonizing countries (read Europe) did not concern themselves with the colonial question. In the second Congress of the Comintern, Lenin stated, “All Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations … and in the colonies.”
On this day, celebrating the 104th anniversary of the October Revolution, let us take a look at what this revolution meant to the masses of India, the country where I live.
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Comintern: National and Colonial Questions
The world had changed immensely since the collapse of the First International, and the reformism, anarchism and Eurocentrism of the Second International led many revolutionaries to utter disappointment. The 1905 revolutionary coup in Russia had failed. Lenin had further solidified his understanding of imperialism as an inevitable extension of capitalism, and understood the importance of an international communist organisation that could truly connect with the people of the colonized countries. Overdetermined by these conditions, the Third International (or Comintern) was formed.
In the second Congress of the Comintern, held between July and August 1920, there were delegates from across the world, including the colonized countries. M.N Roy, a young communist of Indian origins, was representing the Mexican communist party, which he had helped form during his self-exile from India. Abani Mukherjee represented India. Lenin delivered his draft-thesis on ‘National and Colonial Questions’ which substantiated the need for the communist movement to grapple with the material conditions of colonised country and agree on some strategies and tactics to lead the spread of the revolution in the colonized world. He called for suggestions and criticisms from the delegates of various nationalities, who understood their own reality better.
Although M.N Roy was representing Mexico in the Second Congress of the Comintern, his remarks were almost entirely about the struggle in India. In response to Lenin’s address and call for criticism, M.N Roy put forward the arguments which form the basis the famous Lenin-Roy Debate. The debate can be fragmented into three areas of contention: (a) the economic mode-of-production in the colonies, (b) the role and nature of the national bourgeoisie of the colonized countries, and by obvious extension from the previous two points, (c) the mode of struggle and strategy to be applied in the colonized countries.
Lenin had remarked (in the thesis mentioned earlier) that unlike what Marxism had originally anticipated, the colonized world does not go through the subsequent historical stages and their economic mode-of-production remains backward. In the colonized countries, capitalism gets the liberty to be overwhelmingly vicious and ruthless. The character of the national bourgeoisie in those countries is also inversely affected, as the colonizers don’t allow the nationalist bourgeoisie to play the role of developing the productive forces according to its own needs and interests. However, Lenin insisted that there needs to be a strategic support and alliance with the national bourgeoisie of the colonized countries, in the process of overthrowing colonialism. In the USSR, a form of bourgeois-democratic revolution had happened before the socialist revolution could succeed. In the colonized world, the overthrow of colonialism in alliance with the national bourgeoisie would mark a similar step, paving way for socialism.
Roy disagreed on the count that the nationalist bourgeoisie of India was mired in reactionary conservatism. He argued that it was due to Lenin’s lack of awareness about the material conditions of India that the latter ascribed a progressive and revolutionary role to the Indian national bourgeoisie. Roy argued that the bourgeois-nationalist movement led by the Indian National Congress and Gandhi, was backward looking. If the communists had to align with them, the national bourgeoisie would eventually take over control of the alliance and subvert the movement. People would be led to be satisfied with bourgeois-democratic forms of capitalism and nothing more. For clarity of the Russian comrades, Roy compared Gandhi’s movement with the populist movements that had happened in Russia earlier: these were motivated by religious zeal and cultural revivalism, and were reactionary even if they might have appeared to be progressive.
The final resolution of the Congress settled on the following line:
“With regard to those states and nationalities where a backward, mainly
feudal, patriarchal or patriarchal-agrarian regime prevails, the following
must be borne in mind: All communist parties must give active support
to the revolutionary movements of liberation….”
Initially, the phrase towards the end had assured support to “bourgeois-democratic liberation movements”. But Roy’s intervention had successfully warranted its upgrade to “revolutionary movements of liberation”.
The struggle in India was not only the struggle of the INC and Gandhi, argued Roy. The working-class and peasantry had begun to organise. It was a duty of the Communist International to support those movements.
The Communist Party of India was formed in Tashkent, sometime between 1920 and 1921, the dates are contestable. It was consolidated in the Communist Conference in Kanpur, on December 1925.
Bolshevism in Art
Maxim Gorky wrote his iconic novel ‘Mother’, after the failure of the 1905 coup. It tells the story of Mother Nilovna, a working-class woman who slowly turns to the radical path when her son Pavel (aka Pasha) exposes her to the communist movement taking place then. Avtar Singh Sandhu, a militant communist poet from Punjab, read the novel in the 70s and declared his pen name to be ‘Pash’ – named after Pasha. Between the time when the novel was written to lighten up the struggling revolutionaries of Russia, and when it was read and perceived by Pash, came so many events of thrill and solidarity.
Pash wrote about Comrade Bhagat Singh:
“The awakening of the people of Punjab
To a revolutionary consciousness,
Was done for the first time
By Bhagat Singh.
On the day that he was hanged,
They had recovered from his lock-up cell,
Among his belongings
A Lenin book,
On which he had marked the page
Till where he had read;
Now it is our turn
To read the book to that page, and read it further;
To lead the struggle to that stage, and lead it further.”
Among others, Maxim Gorky – a comrade of the revolution and a literary genius, held the idea that the revolutionary Soviet republic should have a revolutionary printing press that actively translated a wide range of texts across different languages. A publishing house for world literature was established in 1919, which survived for five years. A magazine titled ‘Literature of the World Revolution’ was launched in 1931. The most significant was the creation of Publishing Co-operative of Foreign Workers (ITIR), which translated books into foreign languages. Through Comintern connections, ITIR employed mostly migrants from different parts of the world, who brought in their indigenous wisdom. In its first year, it translated to seventeen European languages and five Asian languages. Within two decades, it was translating to various Indian, Arab and African languages. In 1963, ITIR would merge with another organization to give rise to the legendary Progress Publishers. Thousands of books from these publications would come to India, throughout the period of the Soviet Union’s existence. This would bring all kinds of books, from old fairy-tales from across the world, to analyses on political economy.
The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution on art was manifold. ‘Amar Lenin’, a short film by Ritwik Ghatak portrays a working-man from rural Bengal who comes across a jatra about the Bolsheviks going from village to village, understanding the troubles of the peasants and arming them with theory. (A jatra is a drama form practised primarily in Rural Bengal, characterised by music and theatrics.) This was a part of Ghatak’s cinema of praxis, a concept he held on to, even after his fallout with the communist party. There were several such instances where Bolshevism arose in art and armed the working people with confidence to fight.
The vigorous impact of the revolution, may be summed up with a few lines from a poem by Sukanta Bhattacharya:
“We sailed across the murderous seas, we reach the safe shore,
The fields of freedom have arrived, we see no chains anymore;
Only a voice, that whispers my words from within
Saying out it seems as though that I am Lenin.”
No revolution without Lenin
It is important to note that Marxism came to India through Soviet Russia. For a sufficient period of time, Indian people who were exploring different paths of liberation, found their theory in Lenin’s writings and were thus introduced to Marxism. In the Western world, several factions of Marxist thought, both in the academic arena and the political, tend to skip Lenin. The essence of Western Marxism lies in the rejection of Soviet interpretation of Marx, which is denounced as ‘objectivist’. They go further to say that this form of Marxism was derived from Engel’s misrepresentation of Marx, and has no bearing to the original Marx at all. Other schools of the New Left make it a point to develop “anti-Stalinism” in their politics, to avoid bureaucracy and totalitarian control.
Revolutionaries in our world – the colonized world, do not have that luxury. For us, revolution runs through Leninism, which we see as the only path through which we can build socialism. Our party offices and pamphlets, alongside our own indigenous revolutionaries and heroes, have posters of Lenin, Stalin and Engels (and Mao). Not for us the defeatism of Trotsky. Not for us the entitlement of Eurocommunism. It is crucial for us, all the more, to uphold and defend the legacies of the great Bolshevik revolution.
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Spectre of Communism
Three decades have passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The renegades of capitalism have declared the “end of ideology”. The agents of the market who had begun their penetration in the Indian soil with liberalisation in the 80s, are making attempts to seep in further into every nook and corner of the country, their most recent prey being Bhagat Singh’s Punjab. In 2018, a statue of Lenin in the state of Tripura was demolished by the fascist forces, among other reasons, to drive home the point that communism is dead and done with. Yet, there are communist parties, trade-unions and students unions striving to organize and put forth the demands of the hardworking masses. There are countless people finding solace in the red-flag, as the only genuine alternative to the dominant corporate oligarchy. Surely, one may find a know-it-all bourgeois news-anchor screaming, “The USSR collapsed long ago, so what are you on about!” Across the streets and corners, in ghettoes and slums, in villages and universities, one will also find a steadfast communist, answering, “What if the reactionary forces destroy the Taj Mahal some day? Will we stop falling in love?”
This is a very personal attempt at presenting the impact of the Bolshevik Revolution in India. This is not a comprehensive overview. Therefore, I have had to omit certain figures and events, which may have been important. There have been important communist and socialist movements parallel to the CPI, such as the famous HSRA with Bhagat Singh, which I have omitted. I also recognise that in the section on art, my references come from Bengal and North India. I have left out a rich plethora of art from South India, simply because of my lack of knowledge of it. Among the poems mentioned, the poem by Pash was written in Punjabi and the one by Sukanta was written in Bangla. Both have been translated by the present author.
Chowdhuri, S. R. (2007). Leftism in India: 1917-1947. Palgrave.
Prashad, V. (2019). The East was read: Socialist culture in the third world. LeftWord.
Riddell, J., Prashad, V., & Mollah, N. (2019). Liberate the colonies!: Communism and colonial freedom, 1917-1924. LeftWord Books. (The section on Lenin’s Draft Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions, and M.N Roy’s supplementary thesis on the same.
Suryashekhar Biswas is an undergrad from India, majoring in media studies and English literature. He takes interest in cultural and literary criticism and wishes to contribute to the glorious lineage of third-world Marxism.
Featured image: Photo by Midwestern Marx.
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