Third Period, Kerala, "Stalinism"

Matt D. mattd at
Wed Feb 21 10:07:42 MST 1996

The following is excerpted from Ch. 15 of _The Stalinist Legacy_, ed. Tariq
Ali, Pelican: London, 1984

Ch. 15 is an interview conducted by Ali w/ K. Damodaran, a leader of the
CPI, in 1974.

Q: Why do you think the CPI took such a long time to establish itself?  What
was its early activity and its relations with the nationalist movement:
could it be that the infamous 'Third Period' of the Comintern also seriously
disoriented Indian communists by isolating them at a critical phase from the
mainstream of the nationalist movement?

A: 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 ques5ion of organized internal
discussion did not arise.  But you must also understand that the CPI was en
extremely small organization nationally in that period.  In fact the CPI as
a national political force only began to develop in 1935-36 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 [Party].  They
went through a stage of equating the nationalist movement and imperialism.
Kuusinen, Stalin's spokesman on colonial questions, and many writers in the
_Imprecor_ [?] 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 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 analyzing 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 1934 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.


Q:  Could you briefly describe the impact of developments which were taking
place in the Soviet Union on Indian communism?  After all the period we are
discussing was crucial: virtually the entire leadership of the Bolsheviks at
the time of the Revolution were physically eliminated by Stalinist terror as
the prelude to a bureaucratic dictatorship which established its total
monopoly over all spheres of public life [yes, Ali is a died-in-the-wool
Trotskyist -- md].  What was the impact of all this on the Indian movement?

A:  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 -- let 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 7th Congress of the
Comintern, the Dimitrov theses on the Popular Front strategy.  It was after
the 7th Congress that Stalin became well-known 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 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 asked 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
'til the end of the fifties.  The 7th Congress line of Anti-Imperialist
United Front in India was considered not as a break from the past, but as a
tactical change necessitated by the changes in the national and
international situation.  You may consider it strange that that disastrous
colonial theses of the 6th Congress were translated into Malayalam [the
language of Kerala] 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 of 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 re 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.  Phillip
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 interests 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 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
labeled 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 which 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.

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