Home > 2017 > Open Letter to Pravda / Marx and Marxism: A Personal Testament / Journey (...)

Mainstream, VOL LV No 28 New Delhi July 1, 2017

Open Letter to Pravda / Marx and Marxism: A Personal Testament / Journey beyond Marx

Saturday 1 July 2017, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

The following open letter to Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party’s daily organ, was written fiftyfive years ago by N.C. as an ‘Indian Marxist’. In the introduction to the letter it was pointed out that the author was an ‘Indian Communist of 20 years membership record’ of the Communist Party. It appeared in Mainstream (November 3, 1962). (It was on that day that N.C. turned 49.) This was a reply to a Pravda editorial, published on October 25, 1962, recommending the Chinese terms for peace talks for India’s acceptance. It is being reproduced after fiftyfive years to once again bring out N.C.’s independence of thought and action.

Open Letter to Pravda


The Editor,



Dear Comrade,

We have read your Editorial of October 25, 1962, with interest and without prejudice. Many of us have weighed every word in it for it touches a subject of prime importance for the Indian people today as also for the relation of our nation with your great people. And I regret to say that all of us are sorely disappointed with your stand in the current armed dispute between us and China.

We appreciate your anxiety over the deterio-ration of relations between the two biggest Asian neighbours, and we can understand your concern at the prospect of this dispute being exploited by imperialist powers. It is all the more unfortunate that Pravda should have at a very crucial moment come out with a stand which has helped only the forces that are bent on poisoning our country’s friendly relations with the socialist world, particularly with the Soviet Union.

I am prepared to accept that you have a right to express frankly what you think should be the basis for the opening of negotiations between India and China. Although I do not agree with your view, we would not have misunderstood you if you had stopped with recommending the Chinese terms for peace talks released on October 24. Every responsible organ has a right to say openly to a friendly people what, in its wisdom, it considers to be the right course. What has surprised me is that you have described this as “a new step by the Chinese Government aimed at the peaceful settlement of the dispute with India”. Surely, you could not possibly have missed the forthright offer by the President of the Republic of India—whom you no doubt hold in esteem—as early as October 14 that the Chinese might restitute the position as it prevailed on September 7 and thereby prepare the ground for talks. Our President made the categorical declaration: “Much to our sorrow and much against our will, we are obliged to take part in this conflict. We hope that the Chinese even at this late date will withdraw to where they were before September 8, bring about a termination of hostilities and produce a climate wherein it will be possible to think of other things (talks, etc.).” This offer was officially reiterated by the Government of India in a Note to the Chinese Government on Ocotober 16, and repeated once again on October 24. I am at a loss to understand why you could not regard this offer, repeatedly made by the accredited leaders of this country, as a positive step for the solution of this border conflict, and give it your unstinted support. What is it that has led you to prefer, not this offer made earlier, but the one made by Peking? You yourself have said in the Editorial that “the Soviet people highly assess the contribution of sovereign India to the struggle for peace and international security, against colonialism and imperialist military blocs”. If so, would it not have been fair on your part to have recommended the Indian offer for acceptance by the Chinese Government, instead of taking a one-sided position and testifying to the Chinese offer alone being “constructive”? Don’t you think that the position you have taken makes you open to the charge of discriminating against a friendly country, whose contribution to the struggle for peace you yourself recognise?

You have unreservedly taken the Chinese position regarding the border dispute itself. You repeat almost word for word what Chinese propaganda has been doling out when you say: “The question of the Sino-Indian border is a legacy of those times when British colonialists held sway on Indian territory, drawing and redrawing the map of Asia at their own will. The notorious McMahon Line, which has never been recognised by China, was foisted on the Chinese and Indian peoples. Imperialist quarters did their utmost to use border conflicts connected with this line for provoking an armed clash.” In all humility, I have to submit that your standpoint runs counter to reality.

The border between British-occupied India and the old Imperial China was drawn by the British imperialists fifty years ago. Even in those days, the objection from the then Chinese Government did not refer to the Indian sector of the McMahon Line but to the boundary between Tibet and China. However, I need hold no brief for the imperialists. What I have to emphasise is the fact, the indisputable fact, that this McMahon Line continued to mark the peaceful boundary between the independent Republic of China from 1949 to 1959 when the Chinese Government for the first time openly repudiated this boundary and unilaterally laid claim to thousands of square miles of Indian-administered territory south of the McMahon Line.

From the founding of the Chinese People’s Republic in 1949, there was not a single claim to this admittedly Indian territory for ten long years. In fact, in 1954 the two Governments signed a Treaty regarding the Tibet Region of China—when the Indian Government on its own handed over to the Chinese Government many of the privileges and special rights that the British had enjoyed in Tibet—in which the passes for trade and pilgrim routes were specified, the obvious assumption all the time being that there had been no dispute regarding the border as such. Besides, all these years, whenever the Indian authorities came across any map published in China showing the boundary wrongly, they promptly took it up with the Chinese Government and invariably the Chinese reply had been that those represented the old maps of the Kuomintang days, the implication being that India need not bother about them. In fact, there was not a single Chinese objection, formal or informal, in those ten years about Indian maps which clearly showed the McMahon Line as the boundary.

It was only on September 8, 1959—exactly three years before the present armed offensive of the Chinese Army on our border—that Prime Minister Chou Enlai sprang a staggering surprise and repudiated the McMahon Line: there are few parallels in history where a power claiming to be friendly digs up such astounding territorial claims over territory recognised as belonging to the other side for ten years. The armed dispute that has come up on this border is not of India’s making; nor has this country ever allowed any foreign power to make use of it. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government settled the border dispute with Burma along the continuation of that very same British-begotten McMahon Line.

How the Chinese Government has behaved in the matter of this Line can also be gauged from the fact that, even after the surprise claim to territory south of the McMahon Line, the Chinese Government went on making it clear that although they did not recognise the legal validity of this Line, they had not, nor would they, cross it. And yet in the massive offensive which began on October 20, the Chinese Army has blatantly invaded Indian territory—the territory which even their exaggerated bill of claims recognised as Indian soil—and the Chinese Defence Ministry has made a public declaration that the Chinese forces did go far south of the McMahon Line.

It is unfortunate that when you hastened to characterise the McMahon Line as being born out of imperialist conspiracy, you did not take all these into consideration. If the yardstick of territorial claims in the world of today is to be provided by the mere repudiation of the maps provided by the former rulers—whether imperialists or feudalists before them—do you seriously think that a single state in the world can retain its present boundaries? I would like to know how many frontiers of the world Pravda has demanded to be re-drawn only because they were drawn by the imperialists? By this criterion, you cannot even recognise the very existence of Pakistan. Burma was separated from India by the British rulers in 1935 in the teeth of anti-imperialist opposition and mainly with a view to disrupting the powerful anti-British movement of those days. Nobody would expect Pravda to demand the undoing of these imperialist-originated boundaries. Even the Chinese Government has to answer why it does not demand the incorporation of Hongkong or Macao, since these were seized by imperialist powers and retained as such by them unto this day. But then everything is seen topsy-turvy in Peking today. Why this disease should spread to your Editorial sanctum, I cannot understand.

You have said in your Editorial that the “inviolable friendship” between your country and China is based on “identity of aims” and that both these countries together with other socialist countries are “united in the struggle against imperialism, for peace all over the world”. We understand this demonstration of solidarity and we do believe that the socialist countries are playing a decisive role in the struggle for peace.

But can we, in all frankness, say the same thing about the Chinese leaders? In the great ideological debate that has stirred the Marxist world in the last seven years, did you not notice the Chinese position as seriously questioning the possibility of effecting world disarmament? Have not the leaders of the Chinese peace movement gone back upon the famous Moscow Declaration of the Disarmament Conference held in July last? The severely critical reference of the Peking People’s Daily about the magnificent Soviet inititive in thwarting the danger of nuclear war and guaranteeing Cuba’s freedom, this very week, only underlines Peking’s lopsided understanding of the very issue of life and death for mankind, namely, the issue of peace and war. And if this dispute between our country and China has disturbed the peace along a friendly border, you cannot escape facing the reality, that both in raising surprise claims and in enlarging the arena of armed conflict, the Chinese Government has only itself to blame. If today the flow of Western arms into India disturbs you, as it should, would it not be proper for you to address your appeal to the authorities in Peking instead of to our people, since with Peking lies the key to the solution of this embittered issue?

You have referred to the unity between the Soviet Union and China in the struggle against imperialism. Have you noticed how, day in and day out, the leaders of China, from the highest downward, have been branding Prime Minister Nehru of having walked into the American imperialist camp—and become its stooge—in return for the dollar aid? They are propagating that the present border conflict has been engineered by Nehru as he is getting dollar aid. I would ask you to tell us clearly whether this amazing piece of political jaundice fits in with your reading of events in India today. Do you deny the fact that even the recently concluded negotiations for MIG aircraft were conducted by Prime Minister Nehru in the teeth of bitter opposition from the West?

If the Chinese leaders are clear about the nature of the struggle against imperialism, how is it that they malign the very same people who are standing up to imperialist pressures? If Peking has no qualms in extending friendly overtures to President Ayub with all the military-aid commitments of Pakistan, how is it that it thunders at Nehru as the underling of US imperialism? Has not this assessment of Prime Minister Nehru gone against the common understanding of the communist world, reached at the Moscow conference of November-December 1960, whose declaration recognised the positive anti-imperialist role of the leadership of the newly-independent countries of Asia and Africa? It is no accident that a blindly sectarian understanding of the present-day realities has led the Chinese leaders into an adventurist policy against a friendly neighbour.

You have asked for “more active efforts on the part of progressive forces in India” for bringing about a peaceful settlement of the present conflict. And warning against the danger of “chauvinist influences” gaining the upper hand, you have said: “In this case an inter-nationalistic approach is called for.” We are beholden to you for the advice, but would it be out of place to point out that the upsurge of chauvinism over this issue has to be seen in China today and not here? The Foreign Minister of the Chinese Government, speaking at an official function in Peking on October 6, has not hesitated to brand the Government of India as “jackals”. Peking Radio and the People’s Daily of Peking have spared practically nobody worth the name in the Communist Party of India—attacking them with abusive terms.

Even at the very moment when the Chinese Government publicised its peace terms—which you have recommended to us—the showering of choice epithets had not stopped from Peking. With all the angry words uttered in India against China’s invasion of our territory, no leader of the government here has used the language against China that can match in venom the abusive outburst of Foreign Minister Chen Yi. You have quoted with approval the portion of the Chinese statement paying lip-service to “the five principles of peaceful coexistence and the Bandung spirit”. I wonder if you can permit such piosonous polemic on the part of responsible personalities and organs of China as proof of the distilling of the Bandung spirit.

As for “the internationalistic approach”, you will surely agree that it can hardly be a one-way traffic. If the leaders of any country have betrayed a wonderful lack of the spirit of internationalism, it is those of the Chinese Government in their relation to our government as well as those of the Chinese Communist Party in their relation to our Communist Party. Would you not concede that chauvinism is obvious in the case of a government that sends its army to violate the frontiers of a neighbour rather than of the neighbour—its government as well as people—standing up to ward off that aggression? I would invite you to come to any town and village in India and meet the common humanity in field, factory, office or even at the front and see for yourself with what pain in the heart they are today standing up for the defence of their motherland. There is no jingoism in India today, it is the mass upsurge of a people forced by an intransigent neighbour to take up arms in their patriotic duty of defending their beloved land. I would earnestly urge upon you not to mistake the patriotism of our nation today for chauvinism. For, you must know that even with this new calamity visiting us, our people shall not deviate from the path of peaceful amity that this country has chosen for herself.

I have written this letter with candour but not with rancour. It is written in the spirit of comradely criticism which I sincerely believe is the accepted norm in the worldwide communist movement today. And I shall be happy if you will ponder over the points raised here and consider seriously whether your Editorial does not need re-examination. For, I strongly feel alongwith millions in this country, that Pravda should play its worthy role in bringing about mutual amity consistent with honour and independence among peoples of the world.

With warmest greetings,

Yours faithfully,

New Delhi,

November 3, 1962 An Indian Marxist

(Mainstream, November 3, 1962)

o o o

Marx and Marxism: A Personal Testament

The centenary of Karl Marx’s death on March 14 saw impressive tributes to his memory as not only the philosopher who interpreted the world but the revolutionary who sought to change it. From the Parliament to the distant hamlet in this farflung country, wherever a Red Flag with hammer-and-sickle is perched on a bamboo pole, Marx was remembered. Not that anybody had seen him even in a film in this country, but they know that his credo now reigns supreme over one-third of humanity and millions in distant lands look upon his message as one of liberation for the dispossessed. His traducers and adversaries have perhaps done as much to keep his memory alive as his adherents. He would not have agreed to be called a prophet. He was the irrepressible inquirer who tried to discern the law that sets social formations into motion.

I am no learned scholar, but a sunburnt reporter. With the serried ranks of pundits from all over the world—our own quota is no less formidable—evaluating his many-splendoured grandeur, it would be presumptuous on my part to write on Marx and his contribution. I can only recall the early days when I stumbled into Marxism as a student fifty years ago. While studying in Calcutta’s Presidency College, I used to pass daily by a small bookshop which used to be raided by the police almost every other day. Not a political activist in those days but just a god-fearing nationalist putting on Khadi kurta, I felt curious why this shop was the target of constant police attack. One day as I peeped in there, I had my first encounter with Karl Marx—an illustrated history of the Russian Revolution, tucked away at the back of the shop: I was absorbed in the pictures, but the introduction mentioned about Karl Marx and Lenin and Trotsky.

In those days, Communist literature was banned in our country as also the Communist Party. But clandestine literature naturally appealed to young minds, particularly in the revolutionary ferment that was Bengal in those days. As editor of the College Magazine, I had a junior as the Secretary who seemed to have had an acquaint-ance with the proscribed literature: an article by him in Bengali on the ABC of Marxist economy, I found very absorbing. I published it in the College Magazine and there was a flutter. The police warned the Principal, who was a liberal and so he let the matter pass. In those days, Marx in my circle was known only second hand through Laski, Sidney Hook and later, John Strachey. The first Marxist intellectual I met was our respected teacher, Susobhan Sarkar, and the first Marxist speaker I heard was Soumyen Tagore, just released from Hitler’s prison.

Once when studying at Oxford I was asked by my tutor, himself a high Tory, to write on Napoleon III; at the end of a long list of readings he said (and I remember his words even today): “There is another book, rather polemical but stimulating, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx.” It was a bleak January afternoon when I settled down with the book and it was late at night when I put it down. This was a staggering experience. Here was a plausible, rational explanation of History, not a chronicle of kings and their battles, nor of the cause and effect: in a flash, many of the great historians—Thucydides, Gibbon or Acton—seemed inadequate. The words of Engels in the Preface to this book still ring in my ears: “Marx discovered the great law of motion of history according to which all historical struggles, whether they proceed in the political, religious, philosophical or some other ideological domain, are in fact only the more or less clear expression of struggles of social classes, and that the existence and thereby the collisions too between these classes are in turn conditioned by the degree of development of their economic position, by the mode of their production and their exchange determined by it.” The next few days, I read up two other books by Marx, The Class Struggle in France and The Civil War in France. Here was the glimpse of a man who could combine fierce partisanship with cold objectivity. A man deeply involved in action, at the same time sharpened the faculty of taking a total view of a situation. For a young student of History, this was fascinating.

This was my initiation into Marxism. I read little of his economics but more of his historical writings. The first volume of Capital I read, but not the other two. The Communist Manifesto was inspiring, but I was struck by Marx’s intellectual sharpness in his book, The Critique of Gotha Programme, which came to me towards the end of my student days. One can get a slimpse of the wide range of his interest in his Letters. In those days when Marxist literature was not as mass produced at throwaway prices as today, I think we read it with avidity and earnestness and perhaps greater seriousness than today. I need not bore the reader with personal trivia, but it is worth noting that many of us came to Marxism through sheer intellectual pursuit and the life of an activist came later.

In the late thirties and early forties, there was in our country a remarkable commingling of intellectual ferment and militant Left activity, in which the Communists were in the forefront. Not only in the political field but in different branches of culture—literature, drama, science and humanities—there was an upsurge of activity quite out of proportion to the actual strength of the communist movement. Even when the Communists took a grievously wrong turn in national politics as at the time of the 1942 ‘Quit India’ struggle, there was energy and buoyancy in the communist activity.

At the Marx death centenary, eminent Communist leaders have spoken and written paying fulsome homage to Marx’s greatness; and that is as it should be. Their fidelity to Marxism is obviously unquestioned and it would perhaps be presumptuous on the part of a political wayfarer like me to riase a question, simple but nagging: how is it that when Marxism has become widely popular in this country and there is aversion to it in only a die-hard conservative fringe, the communist movement as such has progressively been making less and less impact on national life while its range of interest has conspicuously shrunk in recent years? Many of my generation raise this question not in anger, not in exasperation, but with pain in heart. It is not a question of sitting in judgement on any leader, though many are not of the calibre that can command national eminence: I raise my question in utter humility as I am aware of the fact that there are thousands upon thousands of dedicated workers of this great movement, seeking no publicity for themselves, serving according to their light the interests of the toiling masses in distant corners of our country.

And yet this question has to be raised particularly on the occasion when we remember Marx, for he was himself a withering critic of his own cause, never hesitating to rip open its mistakes and weaknesses, as could be seen, for instance, in his severely objective appraisal of the Paris Commune, done with clinical thoroughness, without belittling its significance.

With the limited understanding of a journalist, I feel that time has now come when every serious Communist can no longer escape the imperative of an introspective assessment of this movement.

The basic question that comes to one’s mind is: after sixty years of thireless work, why is it that the communist movement in this country has not become a national force? No doubt, they have strongholds here and there; they have regional influence as, for instance, in West Bengal or Kerala, but these do not make them a national force.

Viewed from another angle, one has to admit that at many a crucial juncture of the nation’s history, the Communists found themselves out of step. Born largely out of the national struggle for freedom, how was it that they got delinked from the militant patriots of 1942, who whould have been its natural allies? Again—and this was certainly more disastrous—the Communists declared a veritable war on the national government immediately after Independence and thereby alienated themselves from the patriotic masses, and these include the workers and peasants. The Communists have always stood for planned economy, but when the concept of planning was seriously introduced in our country by far-seeing minds like Mahalanobis, it took the Communists two long years to decide whether they should support it or not. The list can be multiplied: the purpose is not to draw up a charge-sheet, but to think out why this dissonance with the national ethos.

This is essentially a question of roots. We tend to look upon this question of roots in an emotional, idealistic way. The Communist leaders will argue that they are not denationalised, they have links with their people, they are not alien to the customs and traditions of this country and many of them even observe social or religious rituals. But in a rational, materialist sense, the queston of roots involves a very different discipline. Marx slogged in the British Museu for twelves long years to get a grasp of the Industrial Revolution and discern the laws of class struggle. Lenin in the midst of Czarist persecution made his own study of capitalism in Russia, its impact on the peasantry. This was not a one-time exercise; repeatedly he came back to the subject. And then there is his classic work, State and Revolution, written literally in the midst of revolutionary action.

Mao made his own independent study of the agrarian situation in parts of China, thorough investigation with the discipline of a researcher but the methodology of a Marxist. Ho Chi Minh did his own study of the conditions of his people, particularly the toiling masses under colonial domination. If these leaders emerged as Titans in the esteem of their people, one cannot ignore the enormous effort put in by each of them to understand first hand the working of their societies. And this is not confined to the economic issues alone, it spread to every branch of human endeavour—to culture and philosophy as well. And every one of them acquired a deep grasp of his own national heritage.

What do we see in our case? The early days of the movement saw individual efforts here and there—a Bhowani Sen or a Namboodiripad or a Sundarayya attempted to understand the social forces in their respective areas. But since Independence no serious work of a primary nature has been done by any Communist leader in India. There may have been an outstanding intellect like a Kosambi or a scholar in philosophy like Debiprasad Chattopadhyay, but they came up through their own intellectual background and with little interaction with the leadership of the communist movement.

Why has this happened? This is not because the Indian Communist leaders are intellectually ill-equipped. Many of them have brilliant academic records behind them. It is risky for a lay observer like myself to venture any explanation. What strikes one is the fact that in the early days of the national movement, the young Communists found themselves pitted against outstanding leaders who themselves had taken to mass action as their political weapon in their fight against the imperial power. To assert their ideological identity the young Communists took to a sectarian posture, a common malady of any movement in its infancy. They could have got over it had they applied themselves seriously to study deeply the socio-economic structure in the country: instead, they confined their energy and activity to be a militant ginger group in the national spectrum—more of a radical amendment mover than the organ of an independent line of thinking based on the assimilation of actual mass experience.

Since Independence, intellectual activity by the Communist leadership has progressively declined as could be seen by their contribution in Parliament and State Assemblies, in which the law of diminishing returns is very much in evidence. In fact, election politics has become the main preoccupation of the communist establishment.

Sea-changes have come over the rural scene. There has been no study by any Communist leader of the social impact of the Green Revolution. Abstract debate went on for decades if capitalism had really penetrated into the Indian agrarian economy. This is a country of uneven develop-ment: there is no study of substance by the Communist leadership on such problems as that of the nationalities, or tribal identity, and yet the Communists were the first to point to the nationality question in this country in the early forties. The working class in India has undergone major transformation with industrial develop-ment. But the Communist leadership has given the new working class no national orientation and has confined its activity entirely to the wage question. The Communist support in the working class has not relatively gone up despite the tremendous growth of the Indian working class, both in numbers and importance.

Every political observer is today faced with the growing complexities of the Indian scene—in all its dimensions, political, economic, social and cultural. It is of course easy for an Opposition leader to be a critic of the government. But the communist movement cannot relegate itself to a mere perpetual Opposition, a sort of gentlemanly Raj Narain. It has to seriously apply its mind to independently think and try out its approach, its line of action on all the issues facing this country. If Marx faced the thousand and one problems thrown up by the Industrial Revolution, how much more formidable is the task today when we are in the midst of a technological revolution!

Ours is a country of infinite problems as also of infinite promise in the world of tomorrow. If the Communists do not hink hard and equip themselves, no models from outside will help. In the hundred years since Marx, the communist ideology has turned out to be the most restless ideology in history: its votaries have taken different approaches to many problems facing them, depending on their own understanding of Marxist methodology. From Peking to Rome, from Moscow to Hanoi, Marxism has manifested itself in different models. Certainly there is much to learn from rich experience in social engineering in other countries of the world, but we have to work out our own model and dare to make mistakes and learn from them. That was how Marx set out to change his world—combination of acute intellectual perception with boundless revolutionary zeal. Both have to be acquired by the Communists if they have to learn from the teachings of the great Karl Marx. The time has come for the Communists in India to undertake what Rosa Luxemburg used to call, Renewal—renewal of their roots as also of their role as the upholder of this nation’s rich heritage.

(Mainstream, April 2, 1983)

o o o

Journey beyond Marx

In the midst of the excitement over the dramatic developments taking place before our very eyes in the Soviet Union, we tend to miss their historic significance. In the presence of History, one is apt to miss its majesty.

Perhaps no other single event since the Second World War can match the current revolution in the Soviet Union in its far-reaching dimensions. Never before the crack-up of such a powerful state has taken place with so little of violence. Barring the Indian and Chinese revolutions, no other event in the contemporary world has seen such a vast number of people spread over such a far-flung country stirred to protracted political action as one witnesses in the Soviet Union today. Compared to what has been taking place in the entire Soviet Union now, the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was a relatively small affair though its cost in terms of human losses was far greater. And all this has been happening without conforming to textbook forecasts, and that’s the reason why its unpredic-tability has baffled both the Communists and anti-Communists all over the world. It’s not the End of History as some very learned scholars predicted in the United States, but the Beginning of a new period in the mankind’s march to freedom.

The highroads of history are never straight and smooth, but invariably tortuous, with its ups and downs. It is precisely in this context that one has to realise the untenability of the tenacious belief that Marxism is immutable as also of the equally aggressive ideology that Market decides the fate of mankind. It is worth noting that Karl Marx himself, though down-right emphatic to the point of being aggressive in stating his views, never tried to stamp them with a sense of finality. In course of his turbulent career, he changed his views over and over again. And yet the socio-political theory associated with his name has emerged as the most hidebound in modern times, invested with the authority of an oracle. Those who, in some form or other, have taken Marxism as a doctrine, a dogma, an article of faith, are honestly baffled by the convulsions that are now taking place in the Soviet Union.

How and why has this happened? This can be understood only by referring to the history of socialist thought in the last two centuries, even if we leave out the early stirrings for social justice which in one form or other have been inscribed in human history. More specifically in the European traditions, from Spartacus to Thomas More with his Utopia, on to the Levellers, it is a remarkable saga of human urge for social justice. During the French Revolution with its banner proclaiming Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, there were thinkers who aspired to the vision of socialism. For instance, Babeuf’s Conspiracy of the Equals wanted to carry forward the principle of political equality to the sphere of private property. The stirrings for social equality, that Babeuf represented, failed because of “the absence of material conditions” at the time as Marx analysed. In fact, Babeuf was the precursor of Blanquism, and his ideas cropped up again and again in the revolutionary upheavals of nineteenth century France. In contemporary England, Godwin in his Enquiry concerning Political Justice propagated what can be considered as ethical communism, with an overdose of anarchist thinking.

With the Industrial Revolution bringing in unprecedented turbulence in the social, economic and political arena, one finds, on one hand, the phenomenon of the Luddites spontaneously breaking the new machines, followed by a programme of political action as exemplified by the Chartists. On the other hand, in the world of thought and social enquiry, one comes across the early pioneers like Robert Owen, and then a whole galaxy of thinkers who were absorbed in studying the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution and its social impact. Bentham, Hall, Thompson and Ricardo were all groping for some form of social justice in the new revolutionary context. In France appeared Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon and Louis Blanc to name only a few, while in Germany appeared thinkers from Kant to Fichte to Feurbach and Rodbertus.

It is in this background of the remarkable intellectual churning up that Marx and Engels tried to assimilate different streams of thought from Hegel to Godwin, Fourier to Bakunin and Duhring. While Marx and Engels made assertive claims, they constantly tried to add up or revise their views. Engels, for instance, claimed: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution of human history.” At the same time, he acknowledged, on another occasion, the relative independence of spiritual forces in history. When the Paris Commune rose in 1871, Marx was ecstatic over this storming of heavens and hailed it as “the glorious harbinger of a new society”. At the same time, when it was ruthlessly suppressed, he and Engels did not hesitate to dissect it with clinical objectivity.

Throughout the nineteenth century, one notices this remarkable feature of constant rethinking on the part of the leaders of socialist thought. As the naked violence of the early phase of the Industrial Revolution gave place to a stable capitalist development, Marxist thinking also correspondingly moved. The strident call in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, reflecting the aggressive tone of the First International, was considerably modified when the Second International was formed in 1889. By this time, internationalism itself was tempered by the shift in the focus to the growth of socialist movements in different countries under different conditions.

In the camp of the German socialists, who were then in the forefront with their Erfurt Programme, the Marxists found themselves to be a minority force. In England, the movement concentrated in the building of trade unionism, while the Fabian Society with a pragmatic outlook worked as a sort of a bridge between trade unionists and socialists and helped in the formation of the Labour Party by the turn of the century.

It is worth noting that just about this time, Bernstein came out with outspoken criticism of Marxism, pointing to the need for Marxists to take into account the changing realities of life, and demanded a critical revision of the entire Marxian system of thought and action. In a sense, he pressed for a radical democratisation of the Marxist movement. The attack on Bernstein came from Karl Kautsky who represented the orthodox revolutionary school. Out of Bernstein’s demand for revision of Marxist thinking came the term, Revisionism, which continued to be a dirty word in Marxist vocabulary until Gorbachev.

The militant tenor of Russian Marxism is to be traced to the prevailing objective situation in that country where the ideology under the leadership of Plekhanov faced conditions of extreme underground functioning having to fight the black repression of Czarism. The first battle of the new Marxist trend was against the Narodnik revolutionaries who believed in the cult of individual terrorism as the principal means of overthrowing the Czarist regime. The focus of activity was among the working class and revolutionary youth, into which Lenin came. Within the newly-formed Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the effort was to build an iron-clad underground revolutionary party under conditions of total repression.

The origin of the rigid tradition of the communist movement is to be traced to those early days in Russia when objective conditions kept no other opening. It was precisely on this point that the split in the party came in 1903, when the majority insisted on a highly centralised organisation with a militant programme, while the minority favoured a more cautious programme and a cooperative approach towards other revolutionary groups. The majority, the Bolsheviks, took over the party and threw out the minority, the Mensheviks, and thereby was established the principle that dissent could have no place in a Marxist party.

The parting of company within the Second International came with the outbreak of the War, when the leadership of socialists in most countries supported the War as a patriotic duty while the Bolsheviks under Lenin branded it as an imperialist war in which the working class had no interest in victory: there were intrepid revolutionaries in other countries taking the same position such as Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and even individuals in Britain and France.

The War brought disaster for Czarism and that led to its overthrow in February 1917. In that revolution the Bolsheviks had no role to play and the new government under Kerensky was a democratic government. When Lenin returned from exile, he promptly gave a call for strengthening democracy in what came to be known as his April Theses, and he regrouped the party under conditions of semi-legality. When the conservative pro-Czarist elements under General Kornilov tried to overthrow the much-harassed Kerensky Government in 1917, Lenin gave the call for the defeat of the Kornilov rising, and thereby moved into the centre-stage of Petrograd politics at the time. Then as the War brought more misery and mass discontent welled up with the government proving to be impotent, Lenin gave the call to strike, and the Winter Palace was captured and power came to the Bolsheviks. It was by no means a mass upsurge but a determined band of revolutionaries rousing the entire people that succeeded.

An outstanding feature of this November Revolution was that it was led by a whole cluster of outstanding political figures of whom Lenin was the leader—Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Radek, Sverdlov and Stalin, to name only the more well-known. It was no doubt a party of iron discipline, but all these leaders exchanged views freely and sometimes in the open—with angry polemics but no intimidation. There was extraordinary political ferment and intellectual exchanges in the early days of the Revolution. That was how Lenin managed to switch from one set of policy-strategy to another very different without any difficulty. From War Communism to New Economic Policy was the most unorthodox switch-over and it emerged out of intense debate.

A streak of intolerance towards other parties is generally the feature of a revolutionary situation, but within the Bolshevik leadership under Lenin, there was uninhibited exchange of views. Side by side, in the newly-formed Communist International intensely divergent views were freely expressed as could be seen in the famous exchange between Lenin and M.N. Roy on assessing the national liberation movements.

All this was put down once Stalin managed to get control of the party leadership. He was unsparing in hounding out political opponents. Starting with Trotsky, his liquidation drive physically eliminated all the noted Bolsheviks. The bloody purge spread to the armed forces with the liquidation of Tukachevsky and Blucher among others. No doubt Stalin displayed tremendous drive in changing the face of the Soviet Union by his planned programme of industrialisation. But the cost in terms of human losses was enormous as could be seen in the forced collectivisation of agriculture which took a ghastly toll of millions of peasant lives and their livestock. Even today the Soviet Union has to pay for this crippling of agriculture.

While it would be absurd to hold Stalin responsible for all the faults and shortcomings in the Soviet system, there is no doubt that Stalin behaved in the ruthless tradition of Peter the Great—a character emerging out of Russian history—rather than as a leader of an inter-national movement. This could be seen most forcefully during the Second World War when the heroic feat of the Red Army was invoked in the name of Mother Russia, and it was called the Great Patriotic War—not the war in defence of the only socialist state, as the Communists the world over wanted to believe. This stamp of totalitarian authority was asserted with utmost ferocity within the party and the Soviet society when the slightest dissent led to banishment and terror, the labour camp and total subservience became part of Soviet life. It may be worth noting that anti-Semitism was widely prevalent in Czarist Russia, and out of that disgraceful legacy might have come down the openly discernible anti-Semitism in Stalin’s Russia.

The Communist International was frankly turned into an extended arm of Stalin’s foreign policy. No dissent or difference was possible—that was why Mao kept the Chinese Communist Party away from the Comintern, while Thaelman’s independent approach in Germany was frowned upon and Ulbricht became Stalin’s favourite. Rosa Luxemburg’s independent views within the framework of Marxism were banned from circulation and so were the reminiscences of Lenin’s widow, Krupskaya. Even Lenin’s will was suppressed.

Stalin’s approach towards the great powers—his negotiations with Nazi Germany leading to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and later his dealings with Churchill and Roosevelt—were all permeated with blatant cynical power-politics without any streak of ideological considerations, or susceptibilities towards smaller nations.

It was, therefore, nothing unusual that the change in the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party after Stalin was pulled off by a virtual coup—first by Malenkov and then by Khrushchev ousting Malenkov and killing Beria in the Central Committee meeting itself. Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin’s misdeeds shook the communist world. While many of the fellow-travellers left, the communist monolith itself was shaken. The Hungarian uprising of 1956—undoubtedly a nationalist assertion against Moscow’s domination— was its direct result, while most of the Communist Parties in Europe were left in disarray. Within the world communist movement, conformity was broken. From Beijing to Rome to Prague to Warsaw—there were ample signs of the Moscow authoritarianism becoming a total misfit.

But Khrushchev while exposing Stalin did not question the system itself. This is where Gorbachev, preceded by Andropov, made the qualitative difference. Its impact is felt not merely in the Soviet Union but the whole world. The perestroika-glasnost revolution has literally changed the face of the world. There is a tendency nowadays to say that Gorbachev’s intervention in international affairs was beneficial, but he messed up at home. In a sense, this sounds true but can hardly be regarded as an assessment of his total revolutionary contribution.

Gorbachev has brought about the end of the Cold War and has made striking progress towards disarmament, both nuclear and conventional, so much so that the threat of instant nuclear annihilation has to a large measure disappeared. Within the Soviet Union the economic mishandling when shifting from the outworn command structure has resulted in dislocation and shortage; but the awakened people did not pray for the return of the old days of total control. Glasnost has stirred demands for independence by the constituent republics.

There is little doubt that despite Gorbachev’s efforts at accommodating the conservative elements in the party and correspondingly earning the annoyance of the radicals, the hard core within the Soviet Communist Party thought that they could take advantage of the prevailing discontent and thereby oust Gorbachev. It was this which led to the putsch of August 19-21.

Why did the coup fail? The miscalculation of the hardliners was that they thought they would be able to cash in on popular discontent to take over power. They little realised the new temper of the people whose disaffection was with the half-hearted nature of the reforms and not with the reforms themselves. Even the armed forces could not be summoned by the coup leaders to put down public resistance. How did these conservative leaders make such miscal-culations and thereby fail to re-establish the hegemony of the once-all-powerful Soviet Communist Party?

The fact of the matter is that in the new world that has opened up with technological advance, the consciousness of the common man has also undergone considerable change. This could be seen in Eastern Europe where the all-powerful party establishments, with the police and armed forces at their command, fell like a house of cards. Glasnost has changed the political climate in the Soviet world. And this enabled even a hastily set up popular resistance under Yeltsin to defeat the coup and bring back Gorbachev from detention. The amazing absence of violence in such a lightning political operation also testifies to the strength of the people’s consciousness.

Unless this point is understood in all its dimension, the Soviet developments are not possible to explain. The ignominious crumbling down of the mighty Soviet Communist Party has to be ascribed to the fact that such a huge organisation had been totally divorced from the new trend represented by the perestroika. Rather, it tried to act as a brake upon the reforms; obviously the winds of change initiated by Gorbachev’s New Thinking did not appear to have entered its musty corridors. No doubt there are individual Communists who are attuned to the new developments—Gorbachev himself is one—but the Leviathan that the CPSU had become, was found to be out of touch with the new realities.

From this overview of the communist move-ment, what emerges is that the movement started by Marx was born out of exciting discussions, high-pitched debates in which conformism was never imposed. The Bolshevik contingent having to move in conditions of repression developed its own rigidities, on which was imposed the qualities of the Russian tradition. Since it became successful in capturing power under extraordinary circums-tances—rather defying Marx’s calculation that the revolution would come first in an industrially advanced country—that Revolution was held aloft as an irreplaceable model, making it almost impossible for the entire communist movement to move in cooperation and collaboration with other socialist forces. This very weakness of the movement had so long been tom-tomed as its strong point. The result was that it failed to absorb new ideas, new approaches. It is not just an accident that the communist movement did not throw up a counterpart of John Maynard Keynes. Perhaps there were quite a few who might have been, but were liquidated or spent their lives in Stalin’s labour camps.

Now that the mighty flood has swept off the old, outworn edifice, it is time for all socialist thinkers—in the Soviet Union as also all the world over—to invest the concept of socialism with new qualities—not only of democracy and social justice but other issues of social development (such as the serious problem of ecological preservation) as well. Humankind has reached a new crossroad—transiting from the Industrial Revolution to the Technological Revolution, demanding new and more adequate guarantees of social justice. The pioneers of socialist thought in the past were pathfinders to a new world of advanced productive forces. It is for their descendants today to discard old mores, and move on to new horizons—to strive, to seek, to build a brave new world of freedom, justice and equality. Marx was certainly an important milestone in the journey towards achieving a better life for all on earth but he would have been the first to resent being turned into a tribal totem for blind worshippers.

(Reproduced from Hindustan Times with minor additions; Mainstream, September 21, 1991)

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62