The record of the major formations of the Indian Left is contradictory in the extreme. Alone in the capitalist world, the two Communist parties (cpi and cpm) have had lengthy experience of administering semi-autonomous regions, while their respective trade union federations have played a major role in the labour movement throughout the post-Independence era. Yet the Communist Left has never shown serious signs of eroding the political supremacy of the bourgeoisie over the Indian masses: indeed, it has been as if crippled by its early failure to recognize the obvious, that Independence ushered in a form, however backward, of nationally based capitalism, and that the mode of class rule, however weak in comparison with the West, has remained essentially bourgeois-democratic since 1947. These questions of class analysis have already been discussed in my previous article,footnote1 but the theoretical inadequacies of the Left can be traced back still further to the National Movement period, when the Communists proved incapable of correctly evaluating the nature of the Congress party, its strategy for national liberation, and its relationship to the indigenous bourgeoisie and the colonial state. Even today, differentiation within Indian Communism is often intimately related to perceptions of the role and class character of the Congress.

The position of the Indian vis-`-vis the metropolitan bourgeoisie, though more favourable than in any other colonial country, waxed and waned according to the constraints within which the colonial state was forced to operate: a position involving considerable freedom for indigenous capital during the first and second world wars; one of reimposed subordination during the inter-war and depression years. By the end of the first world war, however, the Indian bourgeoisie was already sufficiently developed and conscious to recognize its fundamental conflict of interest with British capital, and therefore to commit itself to the struggle for complete political independence. Nor did it have to face a powerful challenge from the working class for hegemony within the struggle for national liberation.

To be sure, any mass movement for national liberation harbours an elemental thrust or permanent dynamic towards social revolution. The National Movement in India was no exception. But the strategy adopted by the Gandhi leadership was eminently suited to defend the needs of the indigenous bourgeoisie against the unfolding of such a dynamic. On the one hand, civil disobedience and non-cooperation helped to mobilize mass pressure on the colonial state; on the other, what the left bourgeois-nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose called the ‘method of periodic compromise’ kept this mass activity under careful control, precluding the revolutionary alternative of armed rebellion against British imperialism.

Overstreet and Windmiller, in their celebrated work Communism in India, summed up the history of the Communists during the National Movement period as one of alternation between anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. More accurately, the Communists failed to recognize the necessity to be both anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist in a consistent, principled manner, while remaining flexible with respect to tactical adaptations. Unable to grasp the class structure of their society, they never adequately understood the dual character of Congress as both party and movement and fell into an oscillating pattern of sterile denunciation and uncritical support.

The first conference of the Communist Party of India was held at Kanpur in 1925, bringing together Communists from Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Punjab and electing a central committee. Although this is now officially declared as its birth-date, the cpi had in fact been formed in Tashkent in 1920, after the second congress of the Communist International. Its main work in the following years, under the prominent leader M.N. Roy, was one of propaganda and individual recruitment, in an effort to strengthen the Party’s external and internal structures.

However, the Communists were subjected to particularly severe repression in the 1920s, as a series of conspiracy cases were mounted against them—Peshawar (1922–23), Kanpur (1924), Meerut (1929–33)—and in 1926 there were still only fifty members, compared with thirty thousand in China and three thousand in Indochina. By the time of the famous Bombay textile strike in 1928, Communists were beginning to assume a leadership role in the labour movement and were active in building Workers and Peasants Parties (wpps) and a broad left-wing platform within the Congress.

At this juncture, when a large part of the Congress was radicalizing on the eve of the Civil Disobedience movement of 1930–34, the fatal ‘Third Period’ directives of the Comintern barred the cpi from any serious continuation of mass political work. Whereas conditions were ideal for a principled united-front policy towards the Congress left, promoting political differentiation within the Congress as a whole, the cpi began to denounce Nehru and the radical wing as the ‘left face of imperialism’, in much the same way that European Communists violently attacked social democracy as the ‘left face of fascism’. This missed opportunity was of considerable consequence, as Gandhi now had free rein to co-opt and maintain control of the Congress in the campaign of noncooperation with the British. Only in 1932 did the Comintern leadership take the first steps to review its policy, and to suggest that the cpi might ‘cooperate with’ or ‘infiltrate’ mass reformist organizations such as the Congress. Perhaps one reason for the change of line was the declining membership of an already tiny party: this process continued until the turning point of 1934, when the number of Communists rose from a mere twenty at the beginning of the year to 150 at the end.