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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 23, May 30, 2015

Revisiting P.C. Joshi in Today’s Context

Saturday 30 May 2015, by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta


People’s ‘Warrior’: Words and Worlds of P.C. Joshi by Gargi Chakravartty (ed.); Tulika Books, New Delhi; 2014; 474 + xxii pages; Rs 995.

It is an irony of history that P.C. Joshi, the architect of united front politics in pre-independence India, is a much-maligned, almost forgotten, figure in today’s Left circles, although it is precisely his idea of forging unity with the secular, nationalist forces under the slogan “Left-democratic unity” that is the key issue which now engages the Left. Viewed in this context, this book deserves reading more than once. The book is a scholarly study of PCJ, a kind of attempt at an assessment of this man in a spirit of critical acclaim. The book is an anthology of writings by and on P.C. Joshi, the total number of entries being 44, apart from a commendable Introduction penned by the editor, who herself is a well-known biographer of Joshi, together with Rajarshi Dasgupta, and a rare autobio-graphical note authored by Joshi himself. Joshi’s own writings (34 entries) have been arranged in two sections corresponding to the pre- and post-independence period, while there are ten essays on Joshi, written by a number of distinguished scholars.

Joshi’s very own self-portrayal—entitled “P.C. Joshi in His Own Words : Reflections on Party Life” dated, significantly, November 7, 1968 (pp. 3-12)—deserves careful reading. This is a piece which brings out very poignantly the travails of his life in the party. While PCJ’s role in building up the CPI as a mass party in 1936-February 1948, when he was the General Secretary, is quite well-known, what is not much known is the way he was treated in the Party after his virtual excommunication from the CPI, following the advent of the Ranadive era in the wake of the Second Congress (1948) and its aftermath. That the BTR leadership considered Joshi as an arch “revisionist” is a somewhat old story. But what is new is his description of how he was marginalised in the Ajoy Ghosh period, the hallmark of which Joshi describes as “solving the ideological problem by organisational methods”. (p. 6) This involved corrupt and unethical practices, which pained PCJ, but his attempt to fight and expose them went in vain. In this very bold and frank write-up he has spared none. What, however, is extremely disturbing is his reference to how “B.T. Ranadive destroyed not only all the old archives, but also all the old literature of the Comintern, CPI and other Left parties, the entire Party library and archives from the earliest days to 1950. It took seven days (in night shift) in a factory chimney to burn them, and comrades in charge did it loyally, crying all the while, under ‘orders’ and as part of ‘Party discipline’!” (p. 10) This is a very serious allegation which, if true, is absolutely shameful, criminal and unpardonable.

The writings of PCJ, covering the pre-indepen-dence period, have been compiled from various sources and some of them—like his statement in the Meerut Conspiracy case, the “Gandhi-Joshi correspondence”, “Communist Reply to Congress Working Committee charges”, his tribute to the Kayur martyrs on the eve of their execution, “For the final Bid to Power”—are all quite well-known. But there are at least two quite remarkable pieces, published in New Age (1938) and National Front (1938), respectively, which bring out Joshi’s understanding of the strategy of how in Cawnpore the Communist Party was built up by implementing the united front tactics (pp. 30-47) and how the proletariat was making its presence felt through strike action in Bombay on November 7, 1938 in the period of the united front. (pp. 52-65) In this report Joshi throws interesting light on Dr Ambed-kar’s position: at one level there is a shift in his position from community to class action, which Joshi greatly admires, at another level he is disturbed by his rather narrow vision of the strike, since he intends to use it in his anti-Congress campaign, oblivious of the larger necessity of forging cooperation with the Congress in the fight against imperialism.

More important, however, are Joshi’s writings in the post-independence period, which are largely polemical, as they now come from the pen of a heretic. Credit goes to the editor for compiling some of the most explosive pieces of PCJ which he had to publish unofficially because of his difference with the Party leadership on many issues, and also his valuable reminiscences on his Bangladesh visit in 1971, as the liberation struggle was going on, R. Palme Dutt, who was virtually his mentor, Susobhan Sarkar, the legendary Marxist historian of Bengal, in India Today,Mainstream,National Herald,Indian Left Review and New Wave. These include “Letter to the Central Committee, CPI” (1950), “Let us learn from the Chinese Revolution” (1951), “India’s Path Forward : A Note on the Programme of the CPI” (1964), “Lessons of the Czech Crisis” (1968). In these pieces Joshi expressed his sharp disagreement with the Party leadership, eventually leading to his seclusion in the Party. As Joshi increasingly distanced himself from the official position of the CPI, he undertook a very ambitious project of writing a non-official history of the Party under the auspices of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in the closing years of his life. The aforementioned pieces of Joshi in the post-independence period are sufficiently indicative of the line of thinking that went into the making of his future project.

In the letter to the Central Committee, addressed to B.T. Ranadive, Joshi severely reprimanded the Party leadership for adoption of the Left-adventurist and sectarian line of 1948-50, leading to the formulation that the Nehru Government was a collaborationist and puppet government, under the control of Anglo-American imperia-lism. In his note on the CPI Programme, which he submitted to the National Council in 1964, his focus was on the idea of national democracy, which would have to be accomplished not by forging united front from above but by carrying it to the grassroots. Besides, he identified three main evils that stalked the CPI, namely, dogmatism in thinking, sectarianism in political practice and bureaucratism and authori-tarianism in the Party organisation. (pp. 258-59) In his reflections on the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia Joshi lambasted the Soviet leadership “for committing the greatest single mistake after the 20th Congress of the CPSU” and described it as “a remnant of the all-wise but outworn attitude of the CPSU under Stalin’s leadership”. (p. 297) Besides, he made a bold appeal to the CPI leadership to take a courageous and independent stand on the Czech crisis, as did the European Communist Parties of the capitalist West, which would help “the Leninist elements inside the CPSU to come on top and lead to the final peaceful ideological organi-sational liquidation of Stalinist die-hards” and would “open the flood-gates against Stalinist remnants in GDR, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria”, where the internal reforms got stuck half-way in the aftermath of the 20th Congress. Joshi strongly argued that the CPI’s independent stand on the Czech crisis could enormously bolster the image of the Party in the eyes of the Third World. (p. 299) The message of this article was to highlight the point that the CPI has to take an independent stand on key issues involving the international communist move-ment without being blindly loyal to the Soviet leadership.

Apart from these polemical pieces, there are also essays reflecting on Bhagat Singh, the legacies of Nehru and Gandhi, and a centenary tribute to the 1857 uprising—all of which deserve careful reading. They have one thing in common, namely, appreciation of the positive elements in our nationalist heritage, liberal or radical.

Finally, there is a bunch of essays reflecting on Joshi’s life, time and ideas. While Mridula Mukherjee has written on his contribution to the making of the peasant movement, Sumangala Damodaran enlightens the reader by reflecting on the musical tradition of the IPTA, and Rajarshi Dasgupta focuses on the coming into being of the People’s Art in the period of the People’s War. Trina Banerjee’s piece is an informative study of how Joshi worked out the idea of united front in the realm of culture and how his project met a disastrous end following the adoption of the Ranadive line in 1948.

As one finishes reading the book, the reader is struck by two rather odd impressions about the man called P.C. Joshi. The first is obviously a feeling of sadness and revulsion. The way he was treated and marginalised after 1948 and throughout the rest of his Party life is tragic and shameful. The second is a feeling of enigma. Why is it that Joshi, who made a real break-through in the CPI’s history by building it up as a mass party, more specifically by high-lighting the issue of culture in the communist movement, became so heavily marginalised, with virtually no one to support and stand by his side in the Party? Three essays by Sumit Sarkar, Sumanta Banerjee and Sudipta Kaviraj provide interesting clues to this question. As Sarkar explains, Joshi was a prolific writer, an excellent journalist, a great organiser “but not perhaps a significant Marxist theoretician” (p. 369), leading to a mismatch between his organi-sational skill and absence of theoretical creativity”. (p. 371) Banerjee’s piece puts it more candidly, when he says: “Unlike Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh, who were able to chart out a path of nationalist revolution that steered clear of Soviet pressures, Joshi lacked both the width of a mass base and the innovativeness of a political programme to carve out a similar path through the complicated trajectory of India’s socio-political reality.” (p. 378) Therein precisely lies the problem. Except in the afore-mentioned piece on the Czech crisis, what one comes across in Joshi’s articles is his complete dependence on the Soviet and CPGB version of Marxism. In his letter to the Central Committee of the CPI, discussed earlier, for example, it sounds utterly ridiculous when he tries to refute the Ranadive line of Left adventurism by repeatedly citing Stalin and the Zhdanov line in the international communist movement. Kaviraj’s essay puts the question in a larger canvas, highlighting the point that Joshi’s Marxism had two implications. One: for him, Marxism was a body of principles which could be interpreted in contending ways, accommo-dating the spirit of difference. Second: he attempted to bring together all strands of radical thought instead of searching for an “indubitably true” version. (p. 382) Apparently Joshi’s softness towards nationalism, his masterly compre-hension of united front tactics lend credence to this understanding. He certainly believed in a politics of accommodation in regard to the practice of united front tactics but on a theoretical plane one doubts whether he had any intellectual awareness of alternative voices in the Marxist tradition represented by Antonio Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Korsch, for instance.

There is probably one more explanation of the theoretical shortcomings of Joshi. He considered R. Palme Dutt as his mentor and Dutt too had a soft corner for Joshi. In fact, it was Dutt who was largely instrumental in the making of Joshi as the General Secretary of the CPI n 1936, when he was, indeed, too young. But the problem of Dutt was that he was blindly loyal to Stalin and a Stalinist at heart throughout his life. His kind of mindset never allowed consideration of any type of unofficial Marxism. This frame of mind had its lasting impact on Joshi, with the result that after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU in 1956 Joshi’s position was rather ambivalent, his stance against Stalinism lacking any proper theoretical rigour. To put it rather bluntly, fighting Stalinism within the Communist Party without any proper theoretical weapon and remaining trapped in the vocabulary and idioms of Stalinism did not allow Joshi to wage any meaningful battle against his critics in the Party.

This is a volume that deserves reading again and again. Studded with a set of rare photo-graphs and drawings, it gives one the true smell of a rich and glorious past. But it is not clear why such an impressive volume does not carry any index. Besides, the printer should have been more careful in the lay-out of pages. From entry 32 onward the page numbers in the Contents do not match the page numbers of the actual texts that follow. This creates a problem for the reader. Barring these, it is kudos to the editor for bringing out this magnificent anthology.

The reviewer is a former Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta.