October 18, 2020

Communists Organise the Working Class Movement

K Hemalata

IT is not coincidental that the communist movement in our country and also the organised trade union movement are both commemorating the centenary of their formation. Both these events are inspired by the establishment of the first workers’ State in Russia, after the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917. Guided by Marxism-Leninism and its theory of emancipation of the society under the leadership of the working class, communist pioneers like Muzaffar Ahmed, Singaravelu Chettiar, SA Dange, Ghulam Hussain, plunged into the task of organising working class from initial days. The concurrent growth of both these movements can be understood from the fact that the nascent industrial centres of that period (1920s), like Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Lahore, Kanpur, were also considered strong centres for organised working class and the various communist groups that were taking birth.

It is at the initiative of the founders of the communist movement that May Day was first observed in our country. Singaravelu Chettiar hoisted the Red Flag in Madras in 1923 on the first of May and also started the Labour Kisan Party. In a letter to Gandhiji, Chettiar openly expressed his communist beliefs, stating that land and vital industries should be held in common and used for the common benefit of all the workers in the country. This, he stated, should be the real meaning of independence. The idea of linking economic well-being and protection of rights of the working class as an important component of our struggle for independence, is a contribution of the communist movement. Communists started various newspapers and journals, which accorded great importance to the reportage of the issues confronting the working class and propagate their idea of economic and political emancipation.

While the communists were advocating workers unity and class struggle, it was the same time that Gandhiji was talking about arbitration between workers and industrialists (trustees, according to him) for the resolution of their grievances. Gandhiji, representing the interests of the bourgeoisie, did not believe in class struggle as he considered workers and owners as ‘partners’. Trade unions should not organise strikes or conduct struggles, but involve themselves in ‘constructive work’. It is for this reason that he was against the formation of an all India organisation of trade unions. Most of the leaders of the Indian National Congress, who came from the bourgeois class, naturally shared these views and hence, though they were involved in various trade unions, they were not for radicalisation of the working class.

In contrast to these reformist practices, the Communist Party categorically presented its views through its manifestos addressed to the delegates of various Congress sessions. For instance, in its manifesto to the Ahmedabad session of the Congress (1921), it stated: “How can the man working in the factories or labouring in the fields be convinced that national independence will put an end to his sufferings?...If they are to be led on to fight, it must be for the betterment of their material conditions…The workers in the cities demand higher wages, shorter hours, better living conditions…They rebel against exploitation, social and economic; it does not make any difference to them to which nationality the exploiter belongs…”

In the manifesto addressed to the Gaya session of the Congress (1922), calling for complete independence, the Communist Party explained in detail its ‘Programme of National Liberation and Reconstruction’. It advocated establishment of modern industries with State aid and various rights to the working class, including the right to organise and strike. In its plan of action, the Party called for struggles for the recognition of labour unions, workers’ right to strike, an eight-hour working day, minimum wages and better housing. The British police cited this manifesto to the Gaya Congress as an important piece of evidence against the leaders of the Communist Party in the Kanpur Bolshevik Conspiracy Case (1924).

Emphasising the working class character of the Party, it was insisted that whoever wants to become a member of the Communist Party, should sign a declaration (1925) stating that they ‘fully agree with the immediate objective of the party which is the securing of a living wage for the workers and peasants by means of nationalisation of public services, namely land, mines, factories, houses, telegraphs and telephones, railways and such other public utilities which require common ownership’.

Due to the active role played by the communists in organising workers, S V Ghate became the first communist to be elected as an AITUC office bearer. Since then, there was no conference of the AITUC that did not elect a communist as one of its key office bearers. Muzaffar Ahmed was elected vice-president of the AITUC in 1927 and in 1943 S A Dange was elected as its president, a reflection of the work done by the communists among the working class. Even the British government ‘recognised’ the role played by the communists in organising the working class. The Additional Sessions Judge, in his judgement in the Meerut Conspiracy Case (1929) stated that the ‘main achievements’ of the accused was the ‘establishment of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties’ and their ‘hold on the workers in the textile industry in Bombay as shown by the extent of the control which they exercised during the strike of 1928 and the success they were achieving in pushing forward a thoroughly revolutionary policy in the Girni Kamgar Union after the strike came to an end’.

The active intervention of communists among the working class and the propagation of their revolutionary ideas, weakened reformists’ grip on trade unions. The struggle between reformism and revolutionary policy led to various splits in the trade union movement, in spite of the communists’ belief in having a single union within an industry. Reformist leadership, instead of working towards sharpening class struggles and bringing in a revolutionary transformation of our society, advocated class collaborationist positions. Accepting the leadership of the bourgeoisie, they tried to tail the working class movement to the politics and policies of the ruling classes and hence were not interested in strengthening working class unity.

B T Ranadive, explaining the need to fight such reformist tendencies in the working class movement and also striving for maximum unity of the working class, stated: “Working class unity, working class struggle and fight against the reformist sabotage in daily struggle – these must go together…the fight against reformist practice in the trade unions has to be combined with the growing struggle for unity in action for the working class; the two cannot be separated. If the two get separated, you are finished”.

The participation of communists in working class struggles broadened the perspective of trade unions and made them address social issues too. It is because of the efforts of the communists that dalit and non-dalit workers, Muslims and Hindus, forgetting their caste and religious barriers fought in unison for their rights. It is through such struggles that many dalits got inspired and joined the communist movement.

Communists championed the rights of women workers and stood for their equality. In the General Statement of the Communists accused in the Meerut Conspiracy Case, they clearly stated that “subjection and exploitation of women is only one aspect of subjection and exploitation….It must be solved on class lines, not on sex lines”. It is the communists who had first demanded equal pay for equal work, provision of fully paid maternity leave for four months, establishment of creches at work places and reduced working day for nursing mothers.

Communist Party demanded complete abolition of compulsory contract labour and also the system of hiring work through middle-men. It demanded that employment and dismissal of workers should take place through labour exchanges, controlled and supervised by the trade unions. Right from the Draft Platform of Action (1931), the Communist Party had been consistently demanding ‘freedom of speech, conscience, press, meetings, strikes and associations for the toilers and abolition of all anti-popular and anti-labour laws (Trade Disputes Act, the prohibition of picketing, the regulations for the deportation of revolutionary workers, press acts, etc.)

Bowing to the pressure of the working class struggles, the Congress party was forced to include many of these demands in its election manifestoes since the 1930s. After getting elected, it always betrayed the working class and all the more, it had even tried to suppress these struggles using police and State machinery.

It is because of the class attitude of the Congress, that for decades after independence, these demands remain unfulfilled. The Congress and later the BJP-led governments, instead of taking steps to mitigate the problems of the workers, compounded them through the implementation of neoliberal economic policies. With the advent of the BJP government six years ago, the attacks on the working class have intensified to an unprecedented level.

For the profit maximisation of the capitalist class, the Modi government has launched an unprecedented attack on the working class and their hard won rights. It has changed the existing labour laws to weaken the working class movement, prevent the formation of trade unions and deny them the right to strike. This centre-piece of neoliberal reforms was pushed through in an authoritarian fashion during the pandemic.

The experience of working class movement teaches us that the onslaught of ruling classes can be defeated only by building maximum unity among the working class. While the ruling classes are trying their best to derail working class unity by trying to divide them on the basis of religion, caste, etc., communists have taken upon them to confront these divisive politics and unite the working class. Various joint trade union coordination committees were formed to unitedly fight against the attacks of the ruling classes.

The Programme of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), as adopted in 1964 and subsequently updated in 2000, states that it is only through the firm alliance of working class and the peasantry that there can be a revolutionary transformation in our society. Further explaining the importance of the leadership of the working class and its political party, the CPI(M), the Programme states: “Historically no other class in modern society except the working class is destined to play this role and the entire experience of our time amply demonstrates this truth”. This defines our present day understanding of strengthening working class movement and leading such struggles.

Today, when a large number of workers are coming out in struggles raising some of the demands that hark back to pre-independence days and the peasants too are resisting the mounting attacks launched on them, it is once again upon the communists to strengthen these struggles and channelise them in the correct direction. Sharpening class struggles with heightened class consciousness is the only way ahead.