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Comintern and Indian Communism

Communism Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India: 1919-1943 by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta; Seribaan, Kolkata, 2006; PARESH CHATTOPADHYAY This is an important book, perhaps the first of its kind in India.This work of considerable scholarship is a result of meticulous research carried out in Russia, Germany and England based mostly on archival sources now accessible after the collapse of Russia

Comintern and Indian


Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India: 1919-1943

by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta; Seribaan, Kolkata, 2006; pp xxi + 329, Rs 695.


his is an important book, perhaps the first of its kind in India.This work of considerable scholarship is a result of meticulous research carried out in Russia, Germany and England based mostly on archival sources now accessible after the collapse of Russia’s party-state régime. In what follows we first give an outline of the book and then try to offer a couple of comments of a general order.

Comintern Archives

Almost till the end of the party-state, it was impossible to provide an objective evaluation of the Communist International (Comintern or CI for short).The relevant archives were inaccessible to the independent researchers and the official version toeing the party line was useless as research material. It was only towards the end of the régime under the impact of Gorbachev’s ‘Glasnost’ (the best period for the Russian citizens under Party-State capitalism, let us add) that access to the Comintern archives became possible, at first for the Russian historians (1987), no longer obliged to follow the official line, and later for the outside researchers. One should also mention the importance of the publication of Dimitrov’s diary and of the availability of the files of the Dimitrov secretariat in the Comintern. Besides Comintern archives, the archives of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB)

– now completely accessible – is also a valuable source for understanding the history of Indian communism. The author underlines that in spite of all these openings, there is still in India an apathy and resistance towards exploring this area, particularly seen in the Left “still heavily dominated by the spirit of Stalinism” as is evident in the recent publications of the CPI(M) where one finds “a simple repeat of the official version of Party history” (pp xx, 37).

The fact is that it is now possible to know the details of the activities of the Indian revolutionaries in post-1917 Russia. Thus

Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007 while M N Roy’s key role in the formation of the Comintern’s colonial policy is more or less known, what is far less known is that there were also other currents within the Indian revolutionary movement like the Berlin group and the Indian Revolutionary Army (IRA) in Tashkent. After Roy’s exit (1929) no Indian revolutionary was entrusted with the responsibilities concerning the Indian question. The authority passed on to the CPGB.

In the first congress of the Comintern (1919), on the question of the liberation of the colonies, the dominant view was that this liberation was conditional upon the political victory of the working class in the metropolis (Trotsky’s draft of the manifesto). Bukharin, however, underlined that the rebellion in the colonies hastened the collapse of imperialism. The second congress (1920) was marked by Lenin-Roy debate on the colonial question. Roy rejected Lenin’s position of supporting the nationalist movements in the colonies and emphasised the need for victory of revolutions in the colonies for the success of proletarian revolutions in the west. At the same time he underlined that in a country like India with a certain industrial development, there had to be a proletarian revolution under the leadership of the Communist Party. The second congress accepted both Lenin’s Colonial Theses and Roy’s Supplementary Theses. Roy’s position had important echoes at the first congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku (1920). The Berlin group led by Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and Bhupendranath Datta never recognised Roy as the authentic spokesperson of India in Moscow. However, the Royists – not Roy himself who represented the Mexican CP – and the anti-Royists joined hands in founding the Indian Communist Party in Tashkent in 1920. However, Comintern’s third congress (1921) did not address the colonial question.

At its fourth congress (1922) important differences between the Comintern’s position and Roy’s position on colonies surfaced. Contrary to the Comintern’s treatment of all colonies as a homogeneous mass exploited by imperialism, Roy differenciated them following the degree of capitalist development. In the countries with the highest degree of capitalism like India and Egypt, the bourgeoisie were already counter-revolutionary, and there the CP had to lead the anti-imperialist struggle. By the time of Lenin’s death (1924), the colonial question emerged as a major factor in the life of the CI.

Following Lenin’s death, the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the CI started with the fifth congress (1924) – reorganisation of the CPs on the model of the Russian CP that is, the removal of all those who do not conform to the party line. At the fifth congress, Roy re-affirmed his fourth congress position on the colonies as opposed to the Comintern’s official line. Additionally, he criticised the west European parties’ timid position on the colonial people’s anti-imperialist struggle. Here he got Ho Chi Minh as a solid ally. By the time of the sixth congress (1928), Roy was in deep trouble. He refused to side with Stalin against Bukharin. By 1929, he was denounced as a “renegade” for siding with the breakaway group of the German Communist Party (KPD). At the sixth congress, the CI envisaged a period of general crisis of capitalism and the eve of revolutionary uprisings and advanced the slogan “class against class” leading in the first place to the identification of social democracy with “social fascism” to be combatted as “counter revolutionary” (Trotsky and Bukharin – the one already out and the other on his way out of the CI – were for a joint front of communists and social democrats against the growing menace of fascism). The CI’s new position also affected its colonial policy. The bourgeoisie in the colonies were now considered as having become totally “counter-revolutionary”. In India, in particular this character of the bourgeoisie was allegedly concealed by the so-called “Left” within their parties – Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose of the Indian National Congress on whom the attack was to be concentrated exposing their “hypocritical character”. The author cites Stalin’s characterisation of Gandhi and the entire Indian bourgeoisie as a class which relied on “police bayonets for flooding the country with the people’s blood” (140). The period 1924-34 also saw the rise of CPGB, assigned by the CI as the key player in working out the communist policy in India. Here R Palme Dutt played a most sectarian role.

By 1934, the strategy of the CI’s sixth congress championing extreme sectarianism proved disastrous, being a contributing factor to the victory of fascism in Europe. The CPs were in total disarray, decimated, reduced to “groupuscules”, mostly cut off from the bulk of the working people.This strategy also badly affected the CPs in the colonies. The CI was compelled to effect a complete reversal in its seventh congress (1935) with its “united front” (against fascism) strategy. However not long after, the CPs had fallen in line with the new strategy, they were ordered to effect a complete turnaround with the German-Russian Non-Aggression Pact (1939), when fascism ceased to be the main enemy of the working class. Again after the Nazi invasion of Russia (June 22, 1941), the CPs were asked to reverse the line and go


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    Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007

    back to the 1935 line and unconditionally support the war effort. The CPGB took particular care to ensure that the CPI follows the new line by helping the British war effort. This went directly against the nationalist movement against the British rule. The CPGB violently lashed at the Congress, R Palme Dutt calling Gandhi “the pacifist evil genius”. Subhas Bose with his uncompromising position against the British rule was another target for the CPGB and CPI. Very interestingly, this negative attitude towards Bose seems not to have been shared by the CI. Our author refers to a confidential biographical report on Bose submitted by two high CI officials to Dimitrov’s secretariat which refers to Bose’s consistent “left position” against the “rightist forces” in the Congress, “backed by the leftists in the Congress” as well as his “support for the USSR against Fascist aggression” (and his two unsuccessful attempts to enter the USSR).

    Indian Revolutionaries

    Now a word on the Indian revolutionaries in post-1917 Russia. Like revolutionaries from the different parts of the world, different kinds of revolutionaries from India also appeared there. The best known was, of course, Roy who was mainly responsible for the CI’s recognition of the importance of India in the anti-imperialist struggle. Roy had his associates like Abani Mukherji and others. However, there were also other individuals and groups, some of them already existing there before Roy’s arrival, for example, the Indian Revolutionary Association (IRA) in Tashkent and the Berlin group as mentioned earlier. These latter two were in profound disagreement with Roy’s advocacy of proletarian revolution in India. Both these groups, respectively led by Abdur Rabb and Virendra Chattopadhyaya, emphasised the caste-ridden character of the Indian society, where the Indian proletariat, steeped in ignorance and grossest superstition, was caste conscious and not class conscious.The need of the hour was the struggle against the British rulers on the basis of a united front they underlined. Opposing the formation of any CP by Indians abroad, Agnes Smedly, a member of the Berlin group, in her communication to the CI stressed that the CP must grow out of the soil of India and be an expression of the needs of the (Indian) masses and not the needs of Moscow. The CI, however, sided with Roy and allowed him to marginalise the Berlin group till it went out of existence.

    Eventually, Virendranath joined the German CP and Roy sided with its breakaway group and became a “renegade” as was mentioned earlier. The end of 1920s saw the eclipse of the Indian revolutionary groups, the fall of Roy and the complete control of the CPI by the CPGB. Virendranath and Abani Mukherji stayed on in Russia and, caught up in the internal politics, were arrested and finally liquidated.

    Some Remarks

    First a general point. Whatever the third international was, it was not a workers’ international in the Marxian (emancipatory) sense of this being a product of the workers’ “self activity” (‘Selbst-Betätigung’) which the first international was from the beginning (contrary to a certain myth of Marx being its “founder”). A body like the CI could only be the work of a Bolshevik (type) Party – led by a group of radicalised intelligentsia, unelected and unrevocable by the general body of workers, who were expected only to be followers, and unaccountable to anybody outside the party –far and away from the Communist Manifesto’s (1848) “autonomous movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority”. Just as with the Bolsheviks, all the different changes and turnarounds in CI’s policies were entirely the work of its contending leaders, the working people had no role whatsoever in them. Lenin’s statement about Roy cited by the author (p 75) as “an Indian as a representative of the people under colonial rule” totally conforms to this practice. Even a wholly uncritical view of Lenin as seems to be held by the author cannot obscure this fundamental point.

    According to the author, as opposed to Stalin’s “negative assessment of all leftist trends in the international workers’ movement that differed from the Bolshevik Party” Lenin “repeatedly underlined the necessity of uniting all left forces in the revolutionary movement” (p 33). However, the very foundation of the Comintern belies this contention. As opposed to R Grimm, the Swiss socialist leader who suggested the reconstruction of the international on a broad basis admitting all working class parties which had rejected “social-patriotism” during the war or repented after it as well as the pacifists Lenin all through the war stood for schism, not only from the patriots, but even from the pacifists [Borkenau 1962: 165,184, 186].

    The first congress opened on March 2, 1919. But its representative character was contestable. Most of the “delegates” were men who had been living in Russia for a long time and in no way represented the real movements in the countries which they were supposed to represent (the US and Holland were represented by the same individual!). Only one representative from an authentic socialist organisation (Spartacists) in western Europe came – the German H Eberlein who was explicitly entrusted by Rosa Luxemburg before her tragic death to oppose the immediate creation of the international. And he, in fact, abstained in the final (otherwise unanimous) voting [Deutscher 1963:451; Frank 1979:46-47; Kriegel 1983: 74-75]. Trotsky’s statement cited by the author (p 49): “Together with Rosa we raised the flag of the Third International” has to be taken ‘cum grano salis’. Luxemburg certainly wanted a new international, but she wanted to have it formed only after powerful anti-war and revolutionary mass movements had grown up in all advanced industrial countries of Europe. She was reluctant to join an international dominated by Lenin because of her profound distrust of bureaucratic dictatorship which she foresaw would be extended to the international [Borkenau 1962: p 89]. A second example which contradicts the author’s assertion about Lenin’s openness to alternative left currents, we find in the adoption by the second congress of the CI of the infamous 21 conditions of adherence to the CI, justly called by the author “ultra left militancy” (p 55). We have no evidence that Lenin had opposed those conditions. These conditions seem to be presaging the sixth congress sectarian line. These are very minor remarks which in no way affect or detract from the great historical value of this very important work. This fascinating book so different from the common run of “communist” publications in India, should be obligatory reading for any serious student of India’s communist movement.


    Email: paresh.chattopadhyay@internet.


    Borkenau, Franz (1962): World Communism,

    University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.Deutscher, Isaac (1963): The Prophet Armed,

    Trotsky:1879-1921, Oxford University Press,

    London and New York. Frank, Pierre (1979): Histoire de l’Internationale

    Communiste (1919-1943) T 1, La Brèche, Paris. Kriegel, Annie (1983): Les Internationales

    Ouvrières (1864-1943), PUF, Paris.

    Economic and Political Weekly June 30, 2007

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