Left and the anti-colonial struggle in India

K M Panikkar reviews Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri’s Leftism in India: 1917-1947 for the Hindu:

Why the Left failed to seize the initiative in the anti-colonial struggle in the 20th century has been an endemic question in Indian historiography. Both the nature of the narrative and the critical appraisal of the book are informed by the same intent. By the time the Left appeared on the national scene Gandhian politics had already struck roots, establishing its hegemony so firmly that it was not an easy task for the Left to carve a niche for itself. How the Left tried to do that forms the theme of the longest chapter in the book, in which the author goes over all the critical moments in the history of the Party. The Roy-Lenin Debate over the national and colonial question, the relevance of Workers and Peasants Party, the importance of Meerat and Kanpur conspiracy cases, attitude towards the Second World War, and views on Partition have received particular attention. The author suggests, as many others have done before him, that the Left was found wanting in creatively orienting the anti-colonial politics to its advantage. Nevertheless, the author prefaces his critique by acknowledging the positive contribution of the Left to the anti-colonial movement. The Left, he accepts, “imparted a new dimension to the freedom movement, gave a new substance to the political task of emancipating the nation from foreign domination and invested the idea of political freedom with a revolutionary socio-economic content.” This ideological contribution, the author claims, was not matched by its political achievement. According to him the Left was a marginal force and was unable to “gain a foothold in India during the nationalist movement.” For this failure several reasons are attributed. The first is the irrelevance of “Marxist scriptures to Asian developments” and second, the inability of communism to “identify with the ethos of Indian nationalism.”

Yet another reason advanced by the author is the movement’s dependence on foreign advice. Unlike China and Vietnam, it is contended that the Indian communist parties drew their strength from abroad, closely following the directions of the International. “Most of their policy guidelines had been formulated either in Moscow or in London, with little or no Indian participation. This was a major obstacle to the success of communism in India as its lifeblood depended on frequent transfusions from abroad,” obviating the possibility of “communism’s identification with Indian nationalism.”

However, the author observes that this was against the advice of Lenin who had counselled the leaders of the communist parties of colonial countries to adapt themselves to the conditions of their countries and “to evolve specific forms of revolutionary struggle against imperialism.” For doing that the movement needed a charismatic leader, which the author points out, was missing.

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