July 03, 2022

Anti-Imperialist Struggle: Role of Communists and the left

P Ramachandran

In the run-up to the 75th Anniversary of India’s Independence, we publish a series of articles from the files of the People’s Democracy, which appeared on important anniversaries of independence. The first in the series is the article by Comrade P Ramachandran, then Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M) that appeared in the PD issue dated August 16, 1998. This article was written on the occasion of the Golden jubilee celebrations of our independence.

THE role of the Left in the anti-imperialist movement in our country has been in focus for many years now. There have been debates and controversies among political elements and intellectuals about this subject. Some totally denigrate the historic role of the Communists in the freedom struggle and some others concede the Left's role but try to present it as of no importance.

Today, the interest in the subject has been enhanced in the context of the growing importance of the Left in the current political situation. With the Congress, the traditional dominant ruling party, continuing to be an important force and the BJP, the communal reactionary party emerging as a challenger assuming political power at the centre, the importance of the third force, in which the Communists perform a pivotal role, much attention is being focussed on the Communist movement, its past and its prospects. Naturally, flowing from this situation, the role of the Hindu communal parties – the Hindu Mahasabha, the RSS and the BJP at present – in the anti-imperialist struggle has also become a matter of debate.

Here we are trying to pinpoint some of the important aspects of the contributions made by the Communists and the Left in the anti-imperialist struggle and in developing many common features of nationally acclaimed progressive policies.

Outstanding leaders of the communist movement in India like EMS Namboodiripad, B T Ranadive have elaborately dealt with the role of the Left in the national movement in their writings. The intellectual giant of the world Communist movement Rajni Palme Dutt had analysed the significance of the emergence of the Left in his well-known book India Today. All persons interested in this theme can benefit immensely by  a study of these writings.


The most important aspect of this subject is the fact that the communist movement in India itself was born in the course of the great anti-imperialist upsurge of 1919-21. The young fighters for India's freedom who formed the Party were directly inspired by the great October Revolution of 1917 and the powerful gigantic upsurge of the National Liberation Movement and working class movements in the world in the same period. Among the founders of the Party were the heroic freedom fighters who had left India in the context of the brutal repression by the British imperialists, with the intention of rallying support abroad for carrying on the struggle. The most outstanding among them were the "muhajirs", who fleeing from the British oppressors crossed the Himalayas (Hindukush range) and sought asylum in the newly formed Soviet Union expecting to get help. Among the others were the Ghadar heroes who had settled in Canada, the freedom fighters like M N Roy who had reached Mexico and a group of revolutionaries who had settled in Germany with the intention of mobilising international support. The point to be particularly noted here is that it was the coming together of these anti-imperialist fighters, with the help of the Communist International, which led to the formation of the Communist Party.


Thus, the Communist movement had been vitally connected with the anti-imperialist struggle from the beginning. Again it has to be remembered that the communist movement had very soon attracted all the courageous freedom fighters who had adopted the path of armed struggle in the two decades of this century. These brave revolutionaries who were dubbed as ‘terrorists’ by and large joined the Communist movement and developed as influential leaders of the anti-imperialist struggle. Along with this, it has to be remembered that the young communist of 1920s and 30s had become influential leaders of the Congress itself in many states as in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamilnadu, Bombay, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh etc.

While talking of the Left, the active role of the Congress socialists led by Jaiprakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Dev, Ram Manohar Lohia etc can never be forgotten. In fact, the Congress Socialist Party and the Communist Party together represented the mainstream of the Left in the national struggle.


The British rulers had realised the deeper significance of the emergence of the Left, understanding that the growth of the Left could lead to revolutionary challenges to their rule. Hence, from the very earliest period, they unleashed inhuman repression against the Communists. A large number of Communist Conspiracy Cases were launched – the Peshawar Conspiracy Case in 1921, the Kanpur conspiracy Case in 1924, the Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929-33 and a large number of conspiracy cases in various parts of the country. These conspiracy cases charged the accused with "conspiring to overthrow His Majesty's Government". It can be positively stated that largest number of persons prosecuted by the British in these cases were Communists, while not forgetting that other leaders of the Left Movement had also to face similar repression.


As a result of this continuous repression, the Communist movement had contributed a large number of heroic martyrs in the three decades before independence. Many of the fighters suffered long periods of imprisonment, many had to face death sentences, many were tortured and maimed. All these are telling facts which prove the great role of the communists and the Left in the anti-imperialist struggle. The record of sacrifice by the leaders of the Left can hardly be equalled by many of the leaders of the present-day ‘national’ parties. The most active and vigorous role of the Communists in the growth and expansion of the mass struggles against the British, the militancy and revolutionary fervour which the communist instilled in the minds of the people in many parts of the country gave a new content to the national movement. The anti-imperialist movement undoubtedly got strengthened by the activities of the communists and the Left.


Many do not know that the newly formed Communist Party of India had distributed a militant Manifesto among the delegates to the Gaya Congress in 1921. The Manifesto was a rousing call for intense revolutionary struggle against the British. While in this period, the leaders of the national movement, including the Congress leaders, were only demanding some form of Self rule, at best ‘Dominion status within the British empire’, the Manifesto of the Communist Party had put forward the demand for complete Independence – the first time such a radical demand was put forward and we have to remember that it was only in 1929 the Congress in its Lahore session put forward this slogan of ‘Complete Independence’ (Poorna Swaraj). This significant change in the objective of the national movement rose in the context of the immense radicalisation of the masses, which national leadership had to recognise, despite strong reluctance and vacillation.


The very young Communist Party of India in its 1921 Manifesto had emphasised the point that the freedom struggle could advance rapidly only by drawing in millions of people into mass struggle. There were two aspects to this appeal. The first aspect was that the forms of activity necessary to vitalise the struggle had to be based on mass struggles and actions. Till then, the dominant tendency in the leadership was of mild forms of protest actions, meetings etc. The Communists stressed the need for radical militant mass struggle. The national leadership coming mostly from the upper classes and led by bourgeoisie, rich landlords, rich peasants and traders were all the time hesitant and even fearful of unleashing mass initiative. Hence the question of forms and struggle of activity had great importance. While the Left all along was campaigning for radical militant mass actions, the reformists were trying to limit the scope of mass activities. This conflict continued till the very final stages of the freedom struggle. This was particularly evident in the negative attitude of the dominant leadership towards the heroic post war revolutionary upsurge signified by the events that followed the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) revolt, the intense struggle for the release of INA personnel, the Telangana struggle against the Nizam's British-backed despotism etc.


Along with this, even in the earliest days in 1920s, the Left emphasised that the anti-imperialist struggle could advance only if the vast masses of the toiling people – the working class, the peasantry and also the other democratic sections like the students were brought into the national struggle. The Left elements, particularly the Communists, repeatedly appealed to leadership to take up this task of organising the trade unions, kisan sabhas, student organisation etc and integrating them with the anti-imperialist struggle as a vital task. However, as explained above, the vested interests in the Congress were fearful of the consequences of the growth of militant mass organisations and hence either tried to ignore the suggestions or undermined such efforts. It was in this context that the Communists, the Congress Socialists and even some leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhash Chandra Bose came forward to organise the kisans in the All India Kisan Sabha, students in the All India Students Federation and also to strengthen the trade union movement at the local, provincial and state level and the All India Trade Union Congress. These activities of the Communists had resulted in the rallying of the toiling people as powerful elements of the national struggle. Such organisation of the toiling people actually strengthened mass consciousness and this led to a powerful mass upsurge in the post war period.

As mentioned earlier, the huge wave of working class struggles, militant peasant struggles as in Telangana and Tebhaga movements, the mass general strikes in the wake of the RIN mutiny etc in the post war period was made possible by the rallying of the toiling masses in their own organisations, raising their political consciousness, linking them with the anti-imperialist struggle for decisive actions – these were a distinct contribution of the Communist and Left movement in the country.


The Communists projected the need for linking the struggle for national freedom with the concrete perspective of what freedom would mean to the people. In other words, the struggle for freedom had to be given a positive social and economic content and could not be limited to just political freedom. With this idea, the Communists and the Left presented the content of freedom in concrete terms. It was emphasised that freedom should lead to the destruction of the old social order dominated by the feudals and imperialists and the beginning of the effort to radically transform Indian society.


In this context, the Communists put forward the slogan of ending of zamindari system, the abolition of landlordism, distribution of land to the peasants, major improvements in the living conditions of the working class, literacy and the strengthening of the national economy and putting an end to the exploitation of India's wealth by British imperialism. These demands also did not get a ready response from the bourgeois leadership. At that time, the Congress leadership was even hesitant to demand reduction in the rent burden of the peasantry, far from ending of zamindari etc. It is the great contribution of the Communists that along with championing these demands they organised mass struggles of the peasantry, workers etc in support of these demands. And, in the course of time, the demand for radical content to the slogan of freedom succeeded in winning wide support from various sections in the national movement itself.


This demand for radical content of freedom came also in the context of the very big world wide upsurge following the October revolution, the intensification of the National Liberation Movement, the beginning of socialist construction in Russia, the world capitalist crisis of 1929 and the very widespread radicalisation of the masses. The bourgeois leadership was compelled by these factors as well as the developing mass movement in the country to reconcile themselves to the need for radical social changes as part of the struggle for freedom and it was only in the Karachi congress of 1931 that a programme of fundamental rights and reform of the agrarian system etc was adopted. The Congress leadership was led to this position due to the very powerful demands from the youth who had come to the forefront in the anti-imperialist struggle. The Communists by their intense campaign strengthened these radical tendencies and Jawaharlal Nehru, who represented Leftist thinking in the leadership, also played a major role in the adoption of the Karachi resolution.

In brief, it can be positively asserted that the Left had contributed significantly in pushing the national movement to adopt many radical slogans for social transformation. In the later period, the emergence and spread of the socialist movement represented by the leaders of the Congress Socialist Party also strengthened the efforts for giving genuine social and economic content to the struggle for freedom.


A major problem closely connected with the struggle for rallying all sections of the people in the struggle for freedom and also with the path towards transformation of Indian society was (and is today also) the caste question. The leaders of the national movement especially after Gandhiji came on the scene realised at least partially the seriousness of this problem. They campaigned against many of the manifestations of the caste system especially the practice of untouchability, various forms of discrimination and ill treatment of the dalits, and even the problems like the denial of the right to enter temples to certain castes. But the fight against such practices by the national leadership had certain inherent limitations. While they were keen on rallying these sections of the people in the national struggle, they could not fight against the caste system as such. Many of them even believed in the "Varnashrama Dharma" due to the strong elements of Hindu revivalist ideology and socially conservative backgrounds. Hence, their fight against caste oppression was half hearted.

The Communists from the very outset (even in the earliest manifestos distributed in the Congress sessions) had consistently raised the question of abolition of the caste system itself. They emphasised that this was not a question of fight for Hindu social reform, but was linked with the task of creating a common national and democratic consciousness. The Communists explained how the caste system, was part of the pre-feudal and feudal relations, still existing in Indian society. Hence the fight against caste was integrally connected with the fight against pre-capitalist, social, economic and political relations. This fight implied a vigorous struggle for the uprooting of the existing social and economic order in Indian villages. This task required the abolition of landlordism, genuine land reforms and distribution of land to the tillers. The Communists, thus, correctly connected the fight against caste system with the necessity for change in the agrarian relations. This clear enunciation presented even in 1920s is still valid even today, as in the olden days, since the bourgeois leaderships of various parties virtually ignore this connection.


India during the period of the national struggle faced the problem of communal division especially between the Hindus and the Muslims. While in the earliest periods, there were some glorious occasions of Hindu-Muslim unity, later on the British were able to play the game of ‘divide and rule’ thanks to the short sighted policies of many of the leaders of the national movement. The Communists have all along championed the cause of communal unity and connected it with the struggle for developing a common national consciousness. The vital importance of conscious efforts to draw the Hindu and Muslim masses in common struggles against imperialism and also for their common class interests was the hallmark of the Communist line on this question. The link between the efforts for real unity among the various religious communities and the struggle for social and democratic transformation was systematically projected by the Communists.


The Communists consistently explained how India's struggle for freedom was part of the anti-imperialist revolutionary struggles all over the world. The concept of solidarity with revolutionary struggles and with the socialist Soviet Union which was in the forefront of the fight against imperialism was constantly propagated among the people. The world wide upsurge of the national liberation movement also helped the popularisation of these ideas. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's historic role in fostering this international consciousness was of great importance.

As a result, the Communists and the Left succeeded in the strengthening of the Indian people's solidarity movements with the fight against fascism, against imperialism, aggression etc. Particular mention must be made of the campaign of solidarity conducted by entire national movement in support of the heroic fight of the Chinese people against Japanese aggression, the vigorous support extended to the progressives in the Spanish Civil War in the later part of the 1930s. The Communists were able to influence the national movement in taking such positions. We cannot but mention here that even in this glorious period, there were leaders in the national movement who spoke derisively about the internationalism of the Communists. Solidarity movement connecting the Indian people's struggle with the world struggle forged ahead despite such negative attitudes of some of the bourgeois leaders. Here it has to be noted that it was this consciousness of international solidarity which later on played a very important role in the evolution of free India's anti-imperialist foreign policy.


To conclude, the role of the Communists and the Left in the anti-imperialist struggle was of significance, in the sphere of mobilising the masses, of drawing in the working class and the peasantry, and of giving a militant mass character to the anti-imperialist struggle at various stages. Besides, as has been explained above, in the matter of forging common radical consciousness, the Communists performed a vital role. The Communists succeeded in popularising the basic demands of the common people connecting this with policy questions of importance in the struggle for social, economic and political transformation of India.

The Communists represented the progressive revolutionary practices and ideology of the working class and the interests of the toiling people within the forces participating in the national movement. On the other hand, the national movement carried the impress of the dominant bourgeois leadership in many matters with its inherent limitations. Thus within the anti-imperialist struggles there were two streams, often converging but also in conflict on many issues. This aspect is of deep historical importance.

(August 16, 1998)