Fascinating post-mortem of Indian Left

Updated: Nov 22, 2011, 18:22 PM IST

Delhi: In 254 crisp and scholarly pages (including a rich bibliography), ‘Leftism in India 1917-1947’ may well be the ultimate work on Indian Leftists covering a tumultuous period - from when Lenin seized power in Russia in 1917 to when India gained freedom in 1947. These were the decades when Indian Communists could have made all the difference to Indian history; instead they failed, and miserably at that.

It was in the 1920s that Communist parties were born in China, Vietnam and India. Both the Chinese and the Vietnamese Communists deftly merged their own movements into the larger nationalist struggles to gain broader support and grow from strength to strength. In India, however, there was no Mao or Ho Chi Minh. So the Communists, although patriotic and equally passionately wedded to Marx, mostly blundered from one crisis to another. Today, the Communists rule China and Vietnam; in India, the original Communist Party of India (CPI) barely exists.

In this fascinating study that covers every shade of the Indian Left, Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri tells us why this happened.

The author is clear that the Leftist movement in India, "like all other living movements, also grew from within and drew sustenance from the Indian soil". It imparted a new dimension to the freedom movement, led by the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi, and invested the idea of political freedom with a revolutionary socio-economic content.

But while democratic socialism, as represented by the Leftist stream within the Congress (the 1934-born Congress Socialist Party or CSP) came up as a rationalist revolt against both Gandhism and Communism, representing a bridge between the forward-looking intellectual minority and the tradition-bound millions, the Communists as represented by the CPI "could never identify itself with the ethos of Indian nationalism".

The reasons were: slavish loyalty to Moscow, lack of unified leadership and factionalism (a disease that persists). All these forced the CPI to make terrible blunders even as it achieved periodic but limited successes. The most significant CPI failures still talked about are the support given to the British during World War II, and its backing to the Muslim League`s Pakistan call. And not to forget that Subhas Chandra Bose was called a "counter revolutionary" and the CSP "social fascists"!

The tragedy was that at one point of time the one man who could rub shoulders with Lenin on ideological issues was an Indian Communist: MN Roy. But once he lost Moscow`s backing, he could only limp. There were many occasions during the independence struggle when the Communists could have played a stellar role but they failed to as they lacked the leadership qualities. In some ways, perhaps, the Communists have had more successes post-1947. That will call for an extension of this scholarly work.