The Communist Movement in India

Sou Mi

February 7, 2021

The subcontinent is home to myriad communist parties — most of which practice class collaboration.

A little over two months ago, the world watched as the biggest general strike in world history took place. Two hundred and fifty million workers in India went on strike, not only fighting back against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed privatization measures, but also demanding better conditions in a year colored by the Covid-19 pandemic. There were pickets and protests everywhere, crippling major industrial centers. Public transit ground to a halt; federal banks shuttered as their workforce went on strike. Railway workers lay down on the tracks, bringing India’s rail system to a screeching halt. All this while hundreds of thousands of farmers arrived at the gates of the capital, Delhi, ready to begin an indefinite siege that is still ongoing, to protest against new pro-capitalist farm laws.

The government of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Modi, has been devastating for India’s diverse proletariat and peasantry. In the last seven years, the Hindutva nationalist government has aggressively liberalized the economy while stoking xenophobic attacks on Muslims and Dalits. So far, Modi has implemented his program with little opposition. The largest opposition party, the Indian National Congress, built the neoliberal order that precipitated the rise of the Far Right. Like Bolsonaro, Trump, and Brexit, the Modi phenomenon rode on the coattails of disillusionment with neoliberalism, twisting that anger to promote a racist, communalist program to gain political currency. From large-scale divestment and privatization of public sector enterprises, to the annexation of Kashmir, to implementing religion-based citizenship programs, the Modi government has used Bonapartist measures not only to attack the country’s minorities but has also to shore up massive profits for its capitalist backers.

Today, for the country’s hundreds of millions of workers and oppressed people, the urgency of breaking the iron grip of the BJP becomes increasingly dire. To do so, they must break with the forces that led to the BJP’s rise. Before the BJP, the Congress party was the chosen party of Indian capital. This bourgeois party has long counted on the support of different communist parties that, for decades, have been a conservative influence on the masses. They have partnered with the Congress party and helped crush workers’ and peasants’ movements across the country. The development of Indian communism is checkered with the betrayals of its Stalinist bureaucracy.

The CPI: The Early Years

The Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded in exile in Tashkent in 1920 by M. N. Roy (who also founded the Mexican Communist Party with Mikhail Borodin, Charles Francis Phillips, and Adolfo Santibañez a year earlier). The party was then re-founded in Kanpur, India, in 1925, as the Communist International was being taken over by Stalinism.

Only a few years earlier, the Russian Revolution of 1917 had inspired large sections of the world proletariat to rise up and throw off its chains. This was particularly true in countries still under the thumb of colonial rule. With the newly formed Comintern eager to spread the revolution, these struggles offered a promising opportunity.

In the previous century, democratic revolutions in advanced nation-states had brought an end to kingships and replaced them with democratic republics. In place of feudal relations, capitalism developed. Industrialization brought increased productive capacities and a burgeoning working class. In India, still under colonial rule, this growth had an uneven and combined character. Productive forces grew under the strict purview of British imperialism, dependent on the British market. The overwhelming majority of the population, however, was still in the agrarian sector. For a backward country like India, the revolution would have to accomplish democratic tasks, such as achieving national independence and breaking the rule of big landowners. But the Indian bourgeoisie was weak and tied to its British masters, and it would be incapable of delivering on the democratic demands growing among the masses. Therefore, the bourgeoisie could not lead a bourgeois revolution. It was, as Trotsky formulated in his theory of permanent revolution, essential for the working class, in their historic role and in an alliance with the peasantry, to take the reins of the bourgeois revolution that was underway and transform it into a socialist one. The theory of permanent revolution provided a program and strategy to connect the struggle for independence to the fight for socialism.

The ideas of communism spread like wildfire among the Indian masses. In 1918, a year after the Russian Revolution, strikes broke out in textile mills in Bombay and soon spread across the country. By 1919, 1.2 million workers across India were on strike. In 1920, to advance workers’ struggles, the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed which continues to be the one of the largest trade union federations in the country to this day. A year later, during the AITUC’s second annual congress, communists helped advance a resolution for purna svaraj, or complete independence. This was nine years before the Congress party, seen as the leaders of the independence movement, would be obliged to take up the demand. The working class and the Left put up a remarkable fight for complete political independence at a time when the bourgeois reformists were still fighting only for “spiritual” independence and home rule.

Threatened by the growing popularity of revolution, the British banned all communist activity and undertook massive crackdowns. With no united party operating within the country from 1920 to 1925, communist nuclei were easily picked off. Among the trials of early communists, the one to make the deepest political impact was the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case of 1924, in which leading members of the communist movement — both in exile, like Roy, and those in the country, like S. A. Dange — were charged with “(depriving) the King Emperor of his sovereignty of British India, by complete separation of India from imperialistic Britain by a violent revolution.” Those arrested and brought to trial, like Dange, used their time in court to popularize communist ideas — ideas that now found their way into the pages of major newspapers and into the hearts and minds of many across the country. Thus, the trials put communism on India’s political map. This eventually culminated in the first Party Conference in 1925, when local communist groups got together to form the CPI. By the time the party consolidated its forces, however, the growth of Stalin’s influence in the Comintern was well underway.

Although highly militant, the party struggled to find its political compass. As the 1930s rolled in, the newly formed party was solidly under Moscow’s influence, undertaking many zig-zags that severely stunted its growth and influence. During the Comintern’s ultra-sectarian Third Period, for example, the CPI split from the AITUC, which communists had controlled, to form red trade unions. This sectarian move effectively turned over the leadership of the AITUC to the reformists. Instead of rightfully fighting for the leadership of the burgeoning independence movement, the CPI further denounced the Congress party and its allies as “social fascists.”

Soon after, however, as the Comintern moved to popular frontism globally, the CPI rapidly moved to make allies out of its class enemies. This manifested in two ways. First, on the directive of the Comintern, the CPI withdrew support from the Quit India Movement — the national movement for complete independence from British rule. Stalin, who had struck up an alliance with the “democratic” imperialist powers like Great Britain, directed the working class in imperialized countries to support their colonial masters. The “fight against fascism” alongside “democratic” colonial powers was declared more important than their fight for self-emancipation. Second, instead of building a revolutionary proletarian force that could defeat both the imperialist (democratic and fascist) and national bourgeoisies, the CPI now saw the Congress as partners in the fight for independence. The CPI, however, always had to play the role of junior partner, especially since the bourgeois-reformist Congress party now exercised complete hegemony over the movement for independence, thanks to the increasing popularity of Gandhi and the prior retreat of the communists from the movement. Thus, even though the CPI grew and extended its influence among the working class in the aftermath of World War II, it did so with no intention of staging a mass revolutionary struggle for socialism.

Postwar Decades

The communist movement in India was, from the very beginning, torn between sectarianism and reformism.

In the early years after India’s independence in 1947 the CPI carried out multiple zigzags under instruction from Moscow. It eventually settled on an electoral strategy of continued alliance with the Congress party to preserve bourgeois democracy. This alliance continued, under Stalin’s instructions, even as the Congress leadership ruthlessly crushed a communist-led armed uprising in the Telangana region. As would continue over the many decades since then, the Stalinists would continue this failed strategy of class collaboration, even as they faced ruthless defeats.

It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that tensions in the CPI would finally come to a head. In 1960, the Sino-Soviet split caused the first major split in the CPI, leading to the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M). By this time, the CPI had completely adopted the line of a “peaceful transition to socialism,” working alongside Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of the Congress party, who had developed a close relationship with the Soviet Union. With Chinese forces under Mao now constantly pressing on India’s northern borders, the question of the party’s alliances became more urgent. In 1964, the left wing of the CPI split from the party, denouncing what they saw as Soviet revisionism and aligning themselves with what they now perceived as the “more revolutionary” Chinese bureaucracy. But this didn’t lead them to change their strategic course. In the years that followed, and even now, the two parties are indistinguishable in program and practice, forming the two strongest blocs of the Left Front, a national electoral alliance. Taking advantage of the Congress party’s failures over two decades, this electoral bloc came to power in the state of West Bengal in 1967 and then again in 1969, intending to carry out a reformist program.

The more militant Maoist bloc within the two ruling Communist parties was now getting increasingly anxious. It declared that bourgeois democracy was useless, and the only way forward was through a “people’s war.” After the victories of peasant-based guerrilla forces in China, Vietnam, and Cuba, India’s Maoists felt the time was ripe to launch a similar struggle. Thus, with the outbreak of militant peasant struggles in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, led by the “Siliguri group,” the Maoists launched an armed rebellion against the Indian state. Faced with this crisis, the ruling Left Front government in West Bengal unleashed the state’s repressive apparatus, mercilessly crushing the rebellion that was now rapidly spreading to urban centers. This led to another split and the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). Over the years, the CPI(ML) has further split into several Maoist groups that continue to hold parts of India’s forest lands in alliances with peasants and indigenous communities, forming guerrilla forces as part of their “protracted people’s war” against the Indian state.

Although multitudinous, the leading communist parties have ended up kowtowing to one of these two strategies: electoral reformism or guerrilla warfare. Both strategies have resulted in nothing but a series of defeats for the Indian working class.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

It is no exaggeration to state that the class collaboration and crony electoralism practiced by the Left Front in its decades in government has dealt a huge blow to the Left. For the reformist Stalinist parties, which believe in the “two-stage” theory of revolution, their project has simply been to reform capitalism by entering bourgeois governments. In the states of Kerala and West Bengal, they have often formed the majority in state governments.

In West Bengal, starting in 1977, they formed the government for 34 years. During their decades-long rule, they undertook large-scale land redistribution and implemented jobs guarantees and other welfare programs, especially in the early years. In a period of relative economic growth in which capitalist relations were preserved, the Left Front government was able to bureaucratically distribute some wealth to the masses. Under capitalism, however, crises are cyclical and such gains are always precarious.

In 1990, with the onset of liberalization in India, coinciding with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the restoration of capitalism in China and the former Eastern Bloc, the Stalinist parties cautiously started opening up further to the forces of capitalism. Throughout this period of liberalization, they sought to attract capital by deregulating education, health care, and other services, opening them up to private investment. Attacks on the working class and peasantry grew. With urbanization in full swing, low-income families and informal vendors were evicted from their shanty housing and streetside stores to make way for real estate development. Land was forcibly bought from small peasants for a pittance and sold in consolidated blocks to create special economic zones (SEZs) to attract private and foreign investment. As the bosses’ assault on workers’ rights increased, the communist parties showed their support for the industrialists — either with words or with silence. When peasants rose up in rebellion in the town of Nandigram against land acquisitions, the Left Front government brutally crushed them. The dreams of socialism were decimated in all but name. As one of the stalwarts of the Left Front, Jyoti Basu, said,

Socialism is not achievable at this point of time. […] Socialism is our political agenda and it was mentioned in our party document but capitalism will continue to be the compulsion for the future.

With the turn of the century, the Left Front also entered into the ruling government with the Congress party at the national level. From 2004 to 2008, the Left Front served as a junior partner in a Congress-led government under Manmohan Singh, the very architect of economic liberalization in India, as they carried out an aggressive series of privatizations and attacks on workers’ rights. Throughout these years, the CPI boasted of its hardline position against U.S. imperialism. Yet it stood idly by in this new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as the Congress-led government opened up India for foreign capital, breaking away only in 2008 over disagreements on a nuclear deal with the United States.

Today, the Left Front still forms the government in Kerala. Although it initially coordinated an effective response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it has failed to mount a meaningful national opposition to the Modi government, whether against its pandemic response or its many anti-worker, xenophobic attacks that they have implemented over the years.

The Stalinist parties, furthermore, also form the leadership of both the AITUC and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), two of the largest union federations in India, organizing tens of millions of workers in strategic sectors. Yet they have failed to mobilize their base and effectively challenge the ruling classes, even in the face of the growing fascistic forces in the country and their assault on democratic rights. Facing an economic crisis and increasing anger and despair among the toiling masses, the Stalinists, almost like clockwork, call for single-day strikes. While these strikes mobilize hundreds of millions of workers, they offer workers only the opportunity to let off steam. Going back to business as usual the next day, workers are unable to impose their will. Even in the face of the current farmers’ protests and the severe repression unleashed by the state, the Stalinist reformists offer only solidarity in words, not in action, squandering opportunity after opportunity to mobilize the working class and deal a decisive blow to the Modi government and the capitalist regime. Instead of advancing the experiences of the masses within bourgeois democracy and enabling them to fight for socialism, the Stalinist parties tie their hands behind their own backs. For them, the strike is not a school of war — it is an instrument to be carefully used to quell the workers’ anger, improve their political profile and strengthen their bureaucratic control. Once in political office, they then declare that the only way to advance within the current regime is to find allies among the very classes that oppress us. Never do they say that the whole capitalist regime needs to be brought crashing down.

The Maoists, although more militant in form, haven’t fared much better. Instead of fighting for the leadership of hundreds of millions of proletarians and accelerating their experiences within bourgeois democracy — using all methods of struggle, including electoral means — the Maoists rejected all work among the working class. They retreated into the forests with the hope of gradually surrounding urban centers with armed struggle in the countryside. Drawing inspiration from Mao, who built a peasant army in China that defeated both the imperialists and China’s own national bourgeoisie, Indian Maoists have, for decades now, pursued a similar strategy. They declared that trade union activity, alongside electoral work, was just bourgeois reformism. For this revolutionary vanguard, the urgent task was not to wage a battle for leadership of the working masses, but to organize the peasantry — a multiclass group that includes not only poor peasants, but also larger farmers. Anyone who dared to disagree with their program and strategy, even among the Left, was termed a “class enemy.”

In their decades, the Maoists have faced a series of defeats. From controlling a “Red Corridor” through east, central, and southern India across 165 districts in more than half of India’s 29 states in 2007, they are now reduced to fewer than 83 districts across nine states. Some splinter groups, like the CPI(ML)-Liberation, have rejected the sectarianism that dogged much of the Maoist movement and started participating in social movements, trade unions, and even in elections. But this has ended in the same form of electoral reformism practiced for decades by the established Stalinist parties. Instead of building an independent revolutionary force that fights for socialism, they have entered into electoral alliances with various petit bourgeois parties as well as the Left Front.

The Maoists in India are often seen as the opposite to the reformist Stalinist Left owing to their militancy in both words and action. But militancy alone is not enough, especially when it leads the masses to the same dead end of class collaboration and maintenance of the bourgeois state. One need only look at the example of the Maoists in neighboring Nepal — close allies of those in India — for this logical consequence. After successfully waging a “people’s war” to bring about an end to the monarchy from 1996 to 2006, they took power and soon formed a bourgeois government that now administers the capitalist state.

Far removed from their strategic position in capitalist production, furthermore, the proletarian vanguard is directed by its Maoist leaders to retreat to the forests and swell the ranks of the guerrilla army. This transformation of guerrilla warfare as a tactic in the midst of revolutionary uprising into a strategy to be doggedly pursued at all times has far-reaching consequences. Most tellingly, it subordinates the task of the self organization of the working class, which would help the masses make a collective experience as a class, to that of building a military force geared toward defeating the enemy at all costs. This substitutes organs of workers’ democracy for the party bureaucracy, which now becomes the main decision-making body. As Juan Cruz Ferre further writes,

The party-army that leads the revolution is necessarily top-down, like any military force. As mentioned above, there are no democratic bodies, no self-organization, no attempt to build direct democracy. Therefore, this strategy does not involve the mobilization and empowerment of the masses that the revolution is meant to serve. This problem has implications for the long run, because after power is taken (military goal), the working and peasant masses are simply not organized in the council-like bodies that would otherwise become the main organs of power. Hence, the blunted, bureaucratic character of the states in Cuba, China, and Vietnam after their revolutions, blocking or hampering the advance toward communism.

Marx already wrote, 100 years before Mao, that the proletariat was the only consistently revolutionary class in capitalist society. Mao’s peasant army was intended to create a “new democracy” alongside the nationalist bourgeoisie. This utopian project failed, and the Chinese Revolution created a bureaucratically deformed workers’ state. This is why Lenin said, “The party of the proletariat can never regard guerrilla warfare as the only, or even as the chief, method of struggle.” In India today, with a working class comprising hundreds of millions, this strategy has even less to do with Marxism than in Mao’s time.

Which Way Forward for the Indian Left?

For years, the workers of India have been weathering attacks against them by not just Modi’s far-right government, but also by the neoliberal administrations of the Congress party that preceded it. Although India’s GDP has steadily grown in the last few decades, this period of liberalization heralded by the Congress party further deepened the country’s income inequalities. Today, the country’s top 1 percent controls 77 percent of its wealth.

India’s Stalinist parties have long abandoned all their revolutionary aspirations for socialism and are little more than social-democratic parties attempting to reform capitalism. The Maoist groups, far removed from the working masses, have situated their revolutionary aspirations on the peasant guerrillas, to ruinous ends. Each of these forces claims to be the “voice of the working class,” yet none of them has been able to strengthen its collective power to fight back. The defeats faced by the Left in India, especially at the hands of the ruling classes, aren’t to be celebrated. Indeed, these defeats are great losses in the fight for socialism, not just in India but across the world.

For the revolutionary Left, it is essential to study this history, draw lessons from the failures, and fight to reclaim and refound a revolutionary tradition. Short-lived strikes and remote insurgencies are not enough — the working class and oppressed have to fight with their own methods of struggle, based on their own strength. To lead workers in their struggles not only against the bosses but also in the fight for socialism, it is essential for the Indian Left to take on the task of building a new revolutionary party — one that is based on class independence and the self-emancipation of the working class.

Unlike the Stalinists and Maoists who automatically declare themselves the revolutionary vanguard and maintain themselves bureaucratically, a new revolutionary party will have to be based on the actual vanguard of the proletariat, attracting the most advanced workers into its ranks. Against the capitulations to popular frontism to fight what the Left currently sees as fascism, revolutionaries need to agitate to fight the Far Right with working-class methods and self-organization. It is in that common fight that the masses can collectively experience the limits of bourgeois democracy and the superiority of their own.

In every sphere, the party needs to prepare the working class to fight for hegemony, through both method and program. Against the bureaucratic, top-down leadership promoted by the old Left, revolutionaries have to agitate for bodies of working-class self-organization, where workers can democratically debate and decide their demands and tactics. In its programmatic elaborations, it has to put forward an anti-imperialist, internationalist, revolutionary program and strategy to fight for socialism.

In addition to a program and strategy for the working class, such a party will also need to propose a revolutionary program for the country’s massive peasantry. Today, despite decades of industrialization, India remains an example of uneven and combined development. Although home to hundreds of millions of workers who form a strategic part of global supply chains, over half of India’s population are still peasants, most of whom engage in subsistence farming with little surplus to trade. The working class will have to fight for hegemony among the millions of semi-proletarian peasant classes, achieved not by promoting guerrilla warfare under the leadership of a peasant army, but by proposing and fighting for a revolutionary program of land distribution and collectivization that can address the material hurdles that face the peasant masses today.

In addition to the democratic rights of all workers and peasants, such a party will have to put the fight against religion-, caste-, and gender-based oppression at its very center. Modi’s current assault on the democratic rights and freedoms of Dalits and Muslims are far from over. From the annexation of Kashmir, to implementing draconian citizenship laws, Modi has especially targeted the country’s Muslims to advance Hindutva supremacy. As we saw in the anti-CAA protests of 2019–20, these assaults continue to mobilize hundreds of thousands in righteous indignation nationwide. For a revolutionary party, it is essential that they mobilize their base, within the working class and radical youth, to fight back against these attacks. Within social movements, such a party needs to expose the misleadership of the reformists and the liberal petit bourgeoisie, who have denounced the Far Right’s xenophobia but not the systemic oppression that Dalits and Muslims have faced for generations. The party will have to show that only the working class, fighting with their methods, can resolve these issues and win lasting democratic rights for all oppressed.

Such a party has to fight for internationalism, challenging the communalist, nationalist framework that plagues large sections of the working class. In the name of anti-imperialism, furthermore, the old Left has often made allies out of the national bourgeoisie or other anti-U.S. regimes. This would reach from Stalinist governments like that of Cuba to deeply reactionary regimes like Iran’s. It is essential to reject these false allies and fight for genuine proletarian internationalism.

Through these struggles and more, the appetite of the masses can no longer be sated by what bourgeois democracy has to offer. A revolutionary party must be prepared for opportune moments to lead an offensive that can bring down the capitalist order. Through propaganda and participation in class struggle, the party must strengthen itself and its ranks, and fight for the leadership of the most advanced sectors of the working class. As is illustrated by the many examples through the development of the communist movement in India, there are no shortcuts to this task. For the fight for socialism, it is urgent that revolutionaries today take up these tasks. In 1939, as the movement for independence continued to grow, in his “Open Letter to the Workers in India,” Trotsky wrote,

Alien to sectarian self-immersion, the revolutionary worker-Marxists must actively participate in the work of the trade unions, educational societies … and, in general, all mass organizations. Everywhere they remain as the extreme left wing, everywhere they set the example of courage in action, everywhere, in a patient and comradely manner, they explain their program to the workers, peasants and revolutionary intellectuals. Impending events will come to the aid of the Indian Bolshevik-Leninists, revealing to the masses the correctness of their path. The party will grow swiftly and become tempered in the fire.

Eighty-two years later, these words still ring true.

Sou Mi is an activist based in New York City.