We Urgently Need a Rainbow Left – One Hundred Years of Indian Communism

Bolivia Movement for Socialism, image courtesy The Nation

The world today desperately awaits the emergence of a new, rainbow Left that is liberated from the disastrous hold of the twentieth century. Indeed, attempts to find or forge such platforms are visible in different parts of the world. Falteringly and with setbacks to be sure, but there is no doubt that serious attempts are underway. And many of these attempts are powered by a different kind of imagination that is unencumbered, to a large extent, by the suffocatiing grip of the last century.

One hundred years ago, on 17 October 1920, the emigre Communist Party of India was formed in Tashkent with MN Roy as its chief initiator. This date of the party’s formation is, of course, contested by the current CPI, which dates its formation from 26 December 1925, when the first ‘Indian Communist Conference’ was held in Kanpur. The date became a matter of contention, especially after the split  in the CPI and the formation of the CPI(M) in 1964 – and at the core of that contention were two related issues. One opinion at the time of the Kanpur Conference had argued for a home-bred and ‘nationalist’ ‘Indian Communism’, in opposition to which the other section saw itself as a contingent or  a chapter of an international movement. The second question became more of an issue in the later years, after Stalin’s death and the revaluation of his role and the manner in which the Comintern came to play a subordinate role to Soviet foreign policy. In between these two lies the phase of the ‘Bolshevization’ of all socialist and communist parties across the world, which ensured that the CPI too, no longer remain an independent party in the sense in which some were arguing at the time of its formation.

A Subterranean History

One of the key figures of that early phase who organized the Kanpur Conference was Satyabhakta, whose original name was Chakhan Lal, who hailed from Bharatpur (in present-day Rajasthan). Historian Charu Gupta, in a forthcoming paper (‘Vernacular Communism – “Marginal” History of Satyabhakta’) has recently done a great service in presenting before us this little-known and much-maligned figure of early Indian communism. She cites Ram Vilas Sharma, one of the the key Marxist figures and an intellectual revered far beyond communist circles in the Hindi region, as saying:

Satyabhakta’s historical significance is that he turned many old revolutionaries towards Marxism and mass movements…. If any one person can be credited with being the founder of the Communist Party, he is Satyabhakta (Sharma, Bharat mein Angrezi Raj aur Marxvaad vol. 2 cited in Charu Gupta, ‘Vernacular Communism’).

It is interesting that despite this evaluation of his role by no less a figure than Ram Vilas Sharma, Satyabhakta is only known to the English reading public as a ‘government spy’ – for that is how MN Roy and Muzaffar Ahmad write of him. Indeed, soon after the Kanpur Conference, he was ‘expelled’ from the party for being a ‘government spy’. (I put the word ‘expelled’ in quotation marks because this seems to be a disputed by his own accounts that he left on his own accord because he did not quite have the temperament of a mass leader).  Charu Gupta also tells us how Satyabhakta, like so many other communists, ‘came from a humble background, lived a simple life throughout, never accumulating  any wealth or property’ and that he also married a dalit woman, who was probably a widow [the last bit of information via Karmendu Shishir (Satyabhakt aur samyavadi party, 2010; Lokmitra prakashan)]. What is more, till the end of his life in the 1970s, he remained as invested in Hindu spirituality (while being opposed to discriminatory caste practices) as he did in Marxism. His language was earthy and simple and full of Hindu mythological references but he never became a ‘political Hindu’ of the Hindu Mahasabha or RSS type.

The world in which early ideas of communism  made their appearance is fascinating because there were always people from very different backgrounds and concerns who gravitated towards the movement, often without leaving their pasts behind. Khizr Humayun Ansari talks of the pan-Islamist youth who left India before 1920 (that is before the mohajirs who had responded to the call of Amanatullah to perform hijrat to Afghanistan) and how their ‘dream of pan-Islamism started fading as the emigres became aware of the strong nationalist interests at work in Muslim states.’ As he puts it, in Kabul, ‘the exiles were confronted with the full force of nationalism’ and they came to understand that ‘though both Indians and Afghans were Muslims, they had separate identities, and pan-Islamism could not overcome the differences of culture, language and psychology which had evolved over hundreds of years.’ (Ansari 1986, ‘Pan-Islam and the Making of Early Indian Muslim Socialists’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 3: 517) For many of them and those who joined later, the turn to the Soviet Union came partially as a result of this realization. The fact that the Soviet government also annulled various unfair treaties, returned occupied areas to Persia, and ‘declared support to Muslim peoples who were fighting to be free’ also played a significant role in drawing the exiles towards the Bolsheviks. (Ibid: 518)

Among the people who inspired the young Muslim youth to undertake jihad against the British (hence mujahids) was the figure of Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi, a Sikh convert to Islam from Sialkot. Ubaidullah Sindhi ‘had been trained at Deoband, where he had re-interpreted Shah Wali-Allah’s reforming ideas in a radical way giving them a revolutionary content.’ (Ansari 1986: 514)[1] According to Ansari, ‘In 1913, he had set up a madrasa called Nizam al-M’arif in Delhi to be able to mobilize Indian Pan-Islamists to take up jihad against the British.’ (Ibid: 514-15) However, in October 1922 Sindhi went to Moscow and was greatly impressed with the achievements of the Russian Revolution and the experience was in many ways transformative for him. He became a great supporter of socialism and later even wrote a Constitution for free India that was inspired by the Soviet experience. (Naeem 2018b) Ubaidullah Sindhi was not just impressed by the economic transformation and achievements of the USSR but underwent radical transformation in his thinking of contemporary problems, looking at them now from a perspective that went beyond purely religious viewpoint. For instance, he says of the Hindu-Muslim divide: ‘Class complexity is present in every nation. The mutual struggle of the rich and the labourer, landlord and peasant, capitalist and worker easily divide every Indian nation into competitive and opposing ranks. That is why, to resolve all Indian problems and especially Hindu-Muslim differences on purely religious basis cannot produce any permanent path to salvation. Therefore we…present a solution to these problems on national and class division and economic and political principles.’ (cited in Naeem 2018b)

Another early figure who, long before the formation of the Indian communist movement, had a great influence on  youth in drawing them towards socialist ideas was Maulavi Barkatullah Bhopali who was also the Prime Minister of the ‘Provisional Government of India’ that was formed in exile with Raja Mahendra Pratap as President in December 1915.  According to Shaukat Usmani, one of the earliest members  of the CPI in Tashkent and founding member at the Kanpur Conference, Barkatullah’s pamphlet entitled Islam and Socialism was widely read among Persian and Turkish reading people and references to it appear in many places. Usmani has called it ‘the Bible of the Persian-knowing Indians and Turkestanians.’ (Usmani 2017) Barkatullah was also deeply impressed by the role played by the Bolsheviks in annulling unfair imperialist treaties which went against the interests of the weaker countries and especially Muslim states. Thus he says, ‘(N)ow the time has come that the Muslims of the whole world and Asian nations obtain complete information about Russian socialism, understand those golden principles and accept them with full passion and sincerity. The noble and high objectives hidden in the foundation of this modern system demand that Muslims should completely support and defend it.’ (cited in Naeem 2018a)

These are just a few random instances to underline that the reasons for attraction to idea of socialism combined a ‘vague’ notion of ‘class oppression’ and justice with a range of other impulses. For the Muslim peoples of the world early Soviet rule meant the unliateral abrogation  ‘unfair imperialist treaties’, whereas for many Hindus like Satyabhakta, socialism allowed him to combine a nationalist anti-imperialism with pro-poor politics.

The Satyabhakta affair actually stands at the cusp of the major transformation which went by the name of ‘Bolshevization’ of all parties across the world, their reconstitution into a single mold (of the Bolshevik  party) and their subordination to Comintern’s central command. By the time we come to 1925, this process was well under way and whatever may have been MN Roy’s differences with the official line then and later on, at that point he was carrying out the Bolshevization agenda. And Bolshevization did not just put a stop to all such dangerous liaisons with non-Marxist concerns and ideas; it also ensured that a certain monochromatic frame would be imposed that defined the lakshman rekha of thought.

Twentieth century socialism was thus acquiring shape and form and as the century wore on, increasingly fewer people would be drawn towards it who had the capacity to think in relatively unconventional ways. At least not within the mainstream of the communist movement. Thereafter, Marxism famously migrated to the academies. Internationally, the figure of Antonio Gramsci stands out as the last among the interesting figures but in countries like India, except for an occasional Sharad Patil theorizing caste under the rubric of ‘Satyashodhak Marxism’, there is little that we can see. Indeed, Patil too was expelled from his party, the CPI(M), and had to form his own outfit to carry on having some degree of connection with mass politics. Most of the other interesting and creative figures on the Left in India have been generally cultural practitioners in the fields of literature, films, theatre and so on and some really interesting work remains to be done in exploring the cultural domain from that point of view.

The Decline of the Left – Looking to the Future

 The overall experience of the Left in India is yet to be properly assessed and it is certainly beyond the scope of this piece to do so. The occasion of its completing a hundred years of existence could have been a great opportunity for stock-taking but it seems like the year-long centenary celebrations have come to an end with some routine reiterations of faith – almost as if the communists themselves are afraid of peering into their own history. My intention in this post is not to berate the Left and the communists yet again, but to emphasize that all those who see themselves as being on the Left have a responsibility bear at this historical juncture – in India as well as globally. It is really not a question this or that communist party any more – especially in view of the massive challenges that stare us in the face.  In that sense, I am less concerned with any ‘actually existing Left’; rather, my interest lies in trying to go beyond the highly fallacious and lazy idea that as long as there is capitalism, the Left will always be relevant. Our recent  history has shown (and continues to do so) that this is certainly not the case and that the crisis of neo-liberal capitalism, in the absence of a Left (or the presence of a defunct Left) can only lead to the strengthening of the most vicious forms of right wing politics. Left politics and Marxism are not the natural ‘antitheses’ to capitalism and it needs to be underlined over and over again that there is absolutely no inevitability to capitalism’s destruction, that it is a political project to be accomplished rather than something immanent in the supposed ‘logic of history’.

The story of the decline of the Left in India can be told in different ways. One could trace the turning point around the conjuncture of 1989-92 when a combination of the implementation of the Mandal Commission, the rise of the Hindu Right and the neoliberal takeover (the collapse of state socialism having robbed the Left of any arguments against it), besieged and overwhelmed it. Alternatively, one can locate it in the ‘historic blunder’ of 1996, when against all odds, a communist was offered the prime ministership of the country but the apparatchiks in the party struck it down. Finally, one could locate it, as many seem to have done, in the humiliating rejection of the CPI(M)-led Left Front after 34 years’ rule in West Bengal, following the mass struggles in Singur and Nandigram. Between 2009 when the LF lost massively in the parliament elections and 2011 when it was decisively thrown out of power in the state assembly elections, there occurred a debate of sorts among Left intellectuals on the reasons behind the Left defeat.

The striking thing about that debate, carried out in the pages of Economic and Political Weekly, is that it was carried out almost entirely in the old language of ‘reform’ versus ‘revolution’. Contributors to the debate included important Marxist intellectuals like Prabhat Patnaik and Hiren Gohain, as well as activist intellectuals like Kripa Shankar, Arup Baisya and CPI(ML) general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya. It was almost as if to say that if only the Left had not got bogged down in reformism (or ‘revisionism’), things would have been fine. Presumably, this also implies that the Left should always stay away form the business of forming  governments. Prabhat Patnaik, whose essay (‘Left in Decline’, EPW 46(29)) actually opened the debate, coming in as he did as a CPI(M) ideologue, at least had to emphasize the question of democracy and the need for Marxists to redefine their relationship to it.  He therefore, had to avoid terms like reformism and ‘revisionism’ and he produced a new category in the bargain: ’empiricization’. It is an odd category for many reasons. As an epistemic category, ’empirical’ would refer to that which is accessible only through senses or sense-perception. To use it to refer to practice is to make a completely unwarranted leap into  domain that brings in its train subjective or discursively constituted matters like ‘experience’ but we can let this pass for the  moment. Through this term Patnaik refers to the tendency on the part of the movement, the domain of practice, to become delinked from ‘theory’ or the ‘theoretical understanding of the movement’. In this case, what he means is that the immediate business of government and politics is then conducted in oblivion of the main goal of the movement – that of ‘transcendence of capitalism’. In such a situation, the immediate politics of adjustment and opportunist compromises takes over. It is not necessary to go into Patnaik’s exposition of the idea of ’empiricization’ but I do want to underline that the assumption here is that the ‘theory’ part of the movement has been sorted out once and for all. All that needs to be thought has already been thought and it is the task of practice to obediently follow such ‘theory’, always; and that practice will never be able to or should never be able to speak back to theory. The question that Patnaik evades is what constitutes the theory? What constitutes ‘transcendence of capitalism’?

Sumanta Banerjee, in one of his articles (see below) actually put his finger on the problem, while responding to the Maoists: if it were the case that reformism is responsible for the decline of the communists, why did communists in countries where power was captured by revolutionary means (Soviet Union, China) also go down the capitalist way? We could ask the same question of Patnaik’s ’empiricization’. Banerjee sees the answer as being linked in some way to the communists’ moral degeneration when in power, which to my mind remains an unsatisfactory one. The answer should actually be sought in the structures of untrammelled power that communists routinely build and legitimize, leaving no possibility of any checks and balances. Why they should all go down the capitalist way is altogether another question and has more to do with the communists’ understanding of the stages of history and with their understanding of capitalism as an inevitable higher stage of history in comparison to ‘feudalism’. In that sense, I would wager that the problem is the opposite of ’empiricization’ – the theoretical, rather theological, belief in the stages of history is what overrides the actual practical demands of the movement. That is why the Left so insistently continues to sing the song of industrialization even today in Bengal.

Parenthetically, I should also say that is really amazing that no one actually paused to raise the more fundamental questions about the paralysis and stagnation in the movements of the so-called basic classes (i.e. the working class and peasantry) under Left leadership from the 1980s onward.

It is only in two pieces by Sumanta Banerjee (‘End of a Phase: Time for Reinventing the Left’, EPW 45(46), 2010 and ‘Revolutionary Movements in a Post-Marxian Era’ EPW 47(18), 2012) that we get a whiff of some fresh air in terms of raising certain key questions. Revealingly, no one thought it fit to engage with him.  Banerjee, in fact, opened his second piece with the old joke about a drunk man looking for his keys under a lamp post, who when asked said actually he lost it somewhere else but was looking under the lamp post because there was more light there! The analogy he was drawing should be clear: the reasons why Marxism or the communists lost the plot lie elsewhere and not beneath the lamp-post they were searching under.  And Banerjee spells it out – this is a post-Marxian era and the old kind of anti-capitalist struggles have been replaced at least in India with entirely different kinds of struggles. But his argument was not only about India but in fact, placed within a global context.

In the Indian context, as against Patnaik’s liberal citations of Lenin and Lukacs with no sense of the practical challenges before the movement, Banerjee raises four sets of issues that define his understanding of the post-Marxian era: (i) movements by forest dwellers against both state machinery and predatory commercial interests (ii) protests by villagers against the establishment of industrial estates, big dams and nuclear plants that threaten to oust them from their lands (iii) civil society campaigns against corruption and crime and (iv) struggles for self-determination in the north-east and Kashmir. He also adds to these four, the looming question of democracy and universal suffrage since the time of the late Engels. Banerjee is not content to merely list these issues. Each of these movements, says Banerjee, has its own  complexities with which Marxist ideologues and political parties often feel ill at ease. Should Marxists treat the movements of forest dwellers and tribal populations as pre-capitalist forms of protest against the introduction of technology, like the Luddite rebellion in the early days of industrialization? Or, should they be recognized in the third world context, as assertions of a strong traditional sense of sociocultural identity reinforced by  protests against modern industrial corporatocracy’s encroachment on their territory?  In contrast to Patnaik’s theological certainties, Banerjee allows the practical challenges of the movements in the third world to disrupt the otherwise unperturbed narrative of received theory. Banerjee does not supply any answers but his questions already indicate some possible directions of seeking answers. The terrain of anticapitalist struggle has changed radically in the past century and a half and this change of terrain has also to do with the fact that this ‘outside’ of Europe and the ‘outside’ of capital demands that the questions themselves be posed differently from the way they were posed in 19th century Europe.

A Rainbow Left

In conclusion, it is perhaps necessary to state in so many words that the concerns of a future Left (or a coalition of many Lefts) cannot simply be ‘transcending capitalism’; its concerns must equally be struggles around issues of gender/ sexuality, caste, patriarchy, ecology and such other questions. There are two levels at which such struggles need to be fought and each have their different temporality: first, the level of the everyday, where the longer term struggle for social transformation in everyday relations has to focus; second, the level of the ‘political’ (including the state, elections and larger structures of power). Leftist imagination characteristically focuses on the second level and even when it recognizes the need for a long-term Gramscian cultural struggle for hegemony, it is always about ‘class’ hegemony, never about these different levels of struggle where institutions of caste, patriarchy or other forms of domination are challenged. If we actually look at our own society, however, we can see how different kinds of struggles take place around such issues on a daily basis where literally hundreds of micro-organizations fight their own battles. Is it possible to see these struggles as part of a larger Left project, who may or may not all be  ready to be part of the struggles at the political level? Similarly, if one actually compiles an inventory of the innumerable small Left-wing parties, individuals and other left-oriented political groups, is there any doubt that what prevents them from coming together in common struggle is the purer-than-thou notion that deeply afflicts most of them. Their notions of purity also mean that they pride themselves in being most unwilling to rethink on anything concerning twentieth century socialism. In this respect, the situation in India is quite unlike some other parts of the world where new kinds of Left formations have emerged over the last two decades.  Unlike the RSS, which at some point decided to function as an umbrella organization that brought together all kinds of disparate Hindutva-oriented groups within its larger ambit, no such imagination exists within the Left. There exist a large number of Hindutva organizations in molecular fashion that the RSS relates to in different ways, in different degrees of closeness. The number of such molecular organizations which could be broadly seen as Left in orientation, is no less even today, but their interest seems to be in their own purity and their refusal to change.

It is perhaps necessary in a centenary stock-taking of the communist movement of India to think of ways to overcome this deep twentieth century malaise and to open out ways of breaking the logjam that we all seem to be stuck in today.


[1] Many however would see Shah Waliullah as “the father of a rigid and puritanical Islam.” (Naeem 2018b)

2 thoughts on “We Urgently Need a Rainbow Left – One Hundred Years of Indian Communism”

  1. Correct, our communist parties have stopped self evaluation of their functioning and policies. We need some out of the box thinking on the state of affairs to be corrected in Indian communist movements that will bring all of them together on a new platform.


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