My personal experience in this period was restricted to Kerala and I will concentrate on that, but of course the line of march throughout the country was essentially the same. I joined the cpi when it was illegal. It had been banned in 1934 after the Bombay Strike wave, which included a general strike of the textile industry. As a result even the distribution of party literature was extremely uneven and the question of organized internal discussion did not arise. But you must also understand that the cpi was an extremely small organization nationally in that period. In fact the cpi as a national political force only began to develop in 1935–6 after the worst excesses of the ‘Third Period’. The politics of the Comintern certainly played a not unimportant part in disorienting the Communist groups which existed regionally in the twenties and early thirties. The Comintern leaders completely underestimated the relative autonomy of the Indian bourgeoisie and its political instrument, the Indian Congress. They went through a stage of equating the nationalist movement and imperialism. Kuusinen, Stalin’s spokesman on colonial questions, and many writers in the Inprecor went so far as to say that the Indian National Congress was a counter-revolutionary force in the struggle against imperialism and the Congress Socialists were branded as ‘social fascists’. The attacks on nationalist leaders in the late twenties and thirties certainly were couched in an ultra-Left rhetoric and were parroted by the different Communist groups which existed in India. However it is not sufficient simply to blame the Comintern: after all the Chinese party also suffered from the wrong advice of the Comintern, but they recovered and finally captured power.

So while not ignoring the importance of the subjective failures we have to look deeper and, when we do, we shall find that there was an objective basis for the existence of a strong and stable bourgeois democratic party like the Indian Congress. This was the development of an Indian bourgeoisie which was not a comprador bourgeoisie and which even in the heyday of the raj enjoyed a certain independence. Its interests clashed on many occasions with those of British imperialism. The Indian capitalists developed at an unusually rapid rate when Britain was tied down by inter-imperialist wars. The existence of this bourgeoisie side by side with a civil service and army that involved many Indians created the basis for the existence of a colonial state apparatus which succeeded in tying down the Congress to its structures and ensuring a smooth transition when the time for Independence came. So Indian communists confronted a unique economic and political structure which they never succeeded in analysing properly.

While the cpi was in fact properly established in 1934–5 its development was uneven. For instance the first communist group in Kerala was organized only in 1937 by five comrades including Namboodiripad, Krishna Pillai and myself. We decided that we should not openly call ourselves the Communist Party but win ourselves a base inside the Congress Socialists. I think that this was correct, but it did not happen nationally. Accordingly we disseminated Communist literature inside the Congress Socialist Party, which itself worked inside the Congress, as an organized grouping. Our influence inside the Kerala Congress was not negligible: Namboodiripad, A. K. Gopalan, Krishna Pillai and, later, myself were all recognized leaders of the Kerala Congress and we held office on the leading committees. Utilizing our position in the Congress we organized trade unions, peasants’ organizations, students’ unions, and associations of progressive and anti-imperialist writers. We organized a regular Communist Party in Kerala only at the end of 1939. It was our mass work coupled with the fact that we were identified with the nationalist aspirations of the people which undoubtedly played a significant role in ensuring that Kerala became one of the important strongholds of post-Independence communism.

In 1938. I was at that time a member of the party, but in the eyes of the masses was still regarded as a nationalist agitator. What brought about my arrest on this occasion was a speech I made to a conference of Youth Leaguers in Trivandrum. I had been asked to preside over the meeting and in my opening speech I mounted a diatribe against imperialism: I attacked British imperialism and the Maharajah of Travancore as embodying the oppression which was being meted out by British imperialism. The right-wing leaders of the State Congress had been saying that the Maharajah was a great man and it was only his local satraps who were to blame and were misleading him. I attacked this absurd concept head-on and utilized the experiences of the French and Russian revolutions, observing that their method of dealing with the monarchy was rather more effective than that of the Congress leaders! I also explained to the meeting the necessity of involving the peasants and workers in the struggle and concluded with the slogan of ‘Inqilab Zindabad’ (Long Live Revolution) which was joyfully taken up by the whole meeting. That same day there were anti-imperialist demonstrations and clashes with the police in Trivandrum. The next morning I was naturally arrested, together with the Youth League leaders. We spent two or three months in prison and were then released. From then on prison became a regular part of my existence.

As far as I am concerned I can speak mainly about Kerala. I was not part of the All-India party apparatus at that time and, as I have already explained, objective conditions—leave alone subjective ones—did not permit horizontal contact with party members in other parts of the country. I joined the party just before the theses of the Seventh Congress of the Comintern, the Dimitrov theses on the Popular Front strategy. It was after the Seventh Congress that Stalin became wellknown in India in the sense that he became the ‘Great Leader’. In fact the theses did coincide—better late than never—with the need for us to have a united front with the Congress against the British. The sectarian ultra-leftism of the 1929–34 period had isolated us and this was seen as an attempt to correct the mistakes. For us it was a step in the right direction. Not so much in Kerala, but in Bombay and Calcutta. After all in Kerala there was no communist party in the early thirties. When people ask me why the cpi became so strong in non-industrialized Kerala as compared to Bombay, I reply that the main reason is that there was no cpi in Kerala in the 1930–33 period and so it was possible to start anew. Most of the Communist leaders in Kerala today were totally immersed in the Civil Disobedience movement launched by the Congress in 1930–32. It explains how they won the support of the masses and were able to shatter the Congress monopoly in a later phase.

But to answer your main question: you must understand that the Communists in India were not seriously educated in Marxism. To give you one example: Lenin’s theses on the colonial question were not known to Indian Communists till the end of the fifties. The Seventh Congress line of Anti-Imperialist United Front in India was considered not as a break from the past but a continuation of the Sixth Congress line and was explained as a tactical change necessitated by the changes in the national and international situation. You may consider it strange that the disastrous colonial theses of the Sixth Congress were translated into Malayalam and other Indian languages precisely in this period. But in practice the United Front was a break from the left-sectarian line. The new line implemented by the Party under the able leadership of P. C. Joshi helped us to advance rapidly. The cpi for the first time became a political force with considerable influence in the Congress, among the Congress Socialists and in the mass movements. The rival Trade Unions were united into a single All India Trade Union Congress in which the cpi became the leading force. The All-India Kisan Sabha, the All India Students’ Federation and the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association came into existence. The Communists played an important role in uniting them and leading their struggles. National unity against Imperialism, Left unity to counter the compromising and anti-struggle policies of the right wing, socialist unity to strengthen Left unity, the cpi as the basis of socialist unity, mass organizations and mass struggles to build and strengthen the united anti-imperialist front—these were the watchwords and positive elements in the new line. This line certainly brought results and helped to build and strengthen an All India Communist Party. The membership of the Party increased from about 150 in 1934 to more than 3,000 in 1939 and its influence multiplied at an even more rapid rate. But these were also the years of Stalinism.

We were told that Stalin was the ‘great teacher’, the ‘guiding star’ who was building socialism in the ussr and the leader of world socialism. And being both new to communism and relatively unschooled in Marxism and Leninism I accepted what I was told. There is a tradition in Indian politics of political gurus enlightening the masses and this tradition suited Stalinism completely. Hence we could accept anything and everything that we were told by the party elders who themselves were dependent for their information exclusively on Moscow. This was the atmosphere in which I was brought up as a communist. However, there were some comrades who were extremely perturbed at the information on the massacres which was coming out of Moscow. Philip Spratt, one of the communists sent to help build the cpi from Britain, became so demoralized and disillusioned with Stalinism that he abandoned communism altogether and became a liberal humanist and towards the end of his life an anti-communist. He was an excellent comrade who played an invaluable role in helping us at an early stage. The Congress left wing was also extremely critical of the purges taking place in Moscow and some of their leaders were extremely disgusted by the propaganda contained in the cpi front journal National Front, which depicted Trotsky as a poisonous cobra and an agent of Fascism. Even Nehru, who was one of the first Congressmen who popularized the Russian Revolution and Soviet achievements, expressed his disapproval of the purges in 1938. But for us, communists, in those days Trotskyism and fascism were the same. I must confess to you that I also believed that Bukharin, Zinoviev, Radek and other victims of Stalinist purges were enemies of socialism, wreckers and spies working in the interest of imperialism and fascism. In discussions with independent minded socialists I defended Stalin vigorously. I think the main reason for this was that we identified ourselves completely with the Soviet Union, which was then under constant attack by British imperialists and by the Congress right wing. Every strike was supposed to have been inspired by Moscow, every street demonstration was supposed to be led by agitators in the pay of Moscow. We defended the Soviet Union against these people, though, of course, completely uncritically. Hence, when the Soviet Union was attacked from the Left we used the same arguments against these critics as well. Looking back on that period I feel that all this was a big tragedy not just for us, but for the whole communist movement. Can you imagine: Trotsky had vehemently opposed Fascism and had warned the German communists against the trap they were falling into and this same Trotsky was labelled by us and thousands of others as a fascist. We sincerely believed that in defending Stalinism we were defending the Russian Revolution. I remember writing articles defending Stalin in the Malayalam press in Kerala after Trotsky’s assassination and utilizing that book ‘The Great Conspiracy’ to get some factual material or what I genuinely believed to be the truth. The official history of the cpsu which was published at the end of the thirties reinforced my faith in Stalin. This book was first translated and published illegally in Malayalam in 1941 and soon became a text book of Marxism for our cadres. The study classes I conducted in jail for our comrades were very much coloured by Stalinism. In fact we identified Stalinism with Marxism-Leninism.