Written by Jack Bennett.
The twentieth century in the shadow of the 1917 Russian Revolution became a century of communist revolution, conflict and collapse. From the formation of Communist China in 1949 under Mao Zedong, following a long conflict with nationalist forces; Castro taking control of Cuba in 1959, providing communism with a foothold in the western hemisphere; to the fall of Saigon in 1975 marking the high-tide mark for communism globally. By focusing on the emergence of communism in India, in relation to anti-colonial independence movements during the first half of the twentieth century, both indigenous and global currents are revealed which produced international conservations and deep engagement across state structure, operating in transnational networks.
The common cause and solidarity between subordinated groups fighting for self-determination and independence from dominant international powers reveals the correlation between international communism and transcolonial anti-colonialism. Kris Manjapra argues that this highlights the ecumenicalism of communism during this period. Traditionally, historiography regards Indian communism as intrinsically related to the USSR’s economic and intellectual support. Manjapra, rather, posits that communism provided a collection of symbols for interpretation, creating a global intellectual melting pot. This effectively breaks down the dichotomy between global and local political and social revolutionary impulses.
The Communist Party of India was established in 1925, having been initially composed in exile in 1918 under M.N. Roy, influenced by Communism experienced in Mexico in 1917. M.N. Roy advocated the international universalism of working-class struggles rather than national concerns. Alonso analyses Roy’s political work in Mexico from 1918 to 1920, arguing that the intellectual revolutionary climate of Mexico not only saw Roy become a communist, but he and his colleagues, concerned with the universal struggle of the working class, dismissed ideas about national identity brewing during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath. Attending the second Congress of the Third International in Moscow in 1919, Roy came into conflict with Lenin over the attitude that the Communists should have to the Indian National Congress. This left Indian Communism in disarray during the 1920s, revealed by the ability of the British to conduct a show-trial, the Kanpur Conspiracy Case in 1924. It was not until the 1930s, with the dissolution of Gandhi’s campaign of civil disobedience that Communism truly took hold and became a political force in India. From its inception, the nucleus of communism in India was incapable of exploiting the currents of revolutionary sentiment and the crisis that enveloped India following the First World War.
International communism during the 1920s, it is important to emphasise, was not in fact a single monolith, but composed of greater fracture and controversy, that influenced global colonial politics. This provides a cosmopolitan vision of South Asia moving beyond geographic borders. International communism fundamentally becomes a transnational intellectual concept, but one focused less on universalism than on the spaces between ideas that operate on local, national and global scales. Manjapra sees in Roy’s work a form of cosmopolitanism that sought both ‘autonomy and solidarity’. In 1922, Roy penned India in Transition, bridging and amalgamating Russian, German and Bengali discourses about temporal progression and eruptive change within a global context of post-war avant-gardism. Illuminating Roy’s belief in a ‘radical notion of solidarity that aimed at radical identification – not just affiliation – with other liberation projects worldwide’. Roy did not see a contradiction in championing independence and interdependence, swaraj and solidarity within a larger global community.
Between 1919 and 1925, WES in Berlin provided a de-centralised, metropole upheld by Soviet communicative and organisational infrastructure, providing political legitimation, and becoming a laboratory for anti-colonial, revolutionary experimentation and coalescence of independent movements. For example, 400 Indians utilised the network from 1921 to 1923; the League Against Imperialism and the Indian Independence League were established in 1928, while Indian communist envoys were sent to China during the Civil War in 1927. In response to this developing Indian communist revolutionary landscape, Britain launched a global campaign of counter-insurgency in order to eliminate anti-colonial radicalism. However, as the USSR dissolved international involvement under Stalinist authoritarianism from 1928, with global meetings banned in 1935, there was a reconfiguration and new direction towards both Indian communism and anti-colonial internationalism, in a process of sustained recognition, negotiation and competition with state nationalism.
Revolutionary activist undercurrents existed in India before the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Swadeshi movement from 1905 had roots in Bengal but extended overseas where communities of Indian radicals attempted to court German support during the First World War. In the United States, a group of Indian expatriates, predominantly labourers and students raised funds and organized in support of the Ghadar movement. At this time the nationalist movement was on the upswing, starting from a campaign against a British decision in 1905 to partition the province of Bengal. This was seen as a move to break up a strong centre of opposition to British rule, as the new province of East Bengal would be dominated by the collaborationist Muslim aristocracy. The movement was soon extended into the Swadeshi campaign, which was a campaign to boycott British goods in favour of Indian ones. This generated Indian capitalist support for the National Congress. Nevertheless, this became the first moment of many in which Indian workers demonstrated large-scale, collective action. Strikes occurred on the railways and in the Punjab and in the textile mills in Bombay, as well as in many small workplaces. These were determined by self-organisation rather than union powers. However, this movement collapsed in the face of factional splits inside the Congress and British imperial repression.
Imposed British control after 1908 was undermined by the First World War. The tussle between imperial powers encouraged nationalist organisation, this time through the Home Rule League, inspired by Irish nationalism. The reactive constitutional reform introduced by the British in 1917 failed to fulfil the Indian demand for self-governance, illustrating the shortcomings of imperial powers in upholding the vision of self-determination. This coincided with the rise of the working class within India. In 1918 and 1919 there were strikes in almost all the Bombay textile mills, the heart of Indian industry at that time. In the first six months of 1921 a series of strikes against the Rowlatt Act, a new piece of oppressive legislation introduced by the British, involved over 1.5 million workers, leading to the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) in October 1920. Despite these advances, the demoralisation and defeat of the Ahmedabad textile workers strike of 1919 demonstrates the limited impact of the Russian Revolution in India, due to the dominance of the labour movement with bourgeois nationalists from the Indian National Congress. This reveals the disjunct between ideals and reality: the Russian Revolution’s democratic pursuit of dismantling autocracy and freedom; came into conflict with Indian commitments to capitalism. For example, Gandhi, with his non-violent reactionary religious fanaticism and anti-industrialist stance, ensured worker and peasant support for nationalism while maintaining the Indian bourgeoise, in order to prevent a socialist movement. Thus, indigenous influences of anti-colonialism, prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917, provided the foundations for the transplantation of communism.
Communism would indeed gain a foothold in India. Producing distinctive leaders, labour unions and mobilisation and political parties. But revolution of the oppressed did not rise in India, communism was not the determinant in the dissolution of British imperial power. It became a movement of internal factionalism and nationalist domination. Freedom was defined by struggle against imperialism, indigenous dissatisfaction with Gandhism and global revolutionary currents, but the internal authorities of Indian remained unwilling to completely rid the country of imperial, industrial and economic systems in the pursuit of independence.
Barry Pavier, ‘India and the Russian Revolution’ International Socialism 103 (November 1977): 24-26.
Isabel Huacuja Alonso (2017) M.N. Roy and the Mexican Revolution: How a Militant Indian Nationalist Became an International Communist
Kris Manjapra, M.N.Roy: Marxism and Colonial Cosmopolitanism (Delhi: Routledge India, 2010), chapter 2, pp. 31-62.
Kris Manjapra, ‘Communist Internationalism and Transcolonial Recognition’ in Cosmopolitan Thought Zones: South Asia and the Global Circulation of Ideas, ed. Sugata Bose and Kris Manjapra (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp. 159-77
Image of Indian communist, Manabendra Nath Roy with Lenin, Moscow 1920.