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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 39, New Delhi, September 12, 2020

Foundation of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in 1925: product of genuine national and working class movements | Anil Rajimwale

Friday 11 September 2020, by Anil Rajimwale


Foundation of CPI in 1925 was a historic event, welcomed by all the progressive sections of the national movement. It was a product of the dialectical combination of the national and class movements, deeply crystallized by the Russian revolution and international events. CPI in the twenties was truly rooted in the industrial working class and the emerging intelligentsia influenced by ideas of socialism and Marxism. Simultaneously a big section of the national movement was involved in it and heartily welcomed its formation.

 Ideas were repeatedly floated and attempts made to establish a Communist Party of India by groups abroad. Serious revolutionaries were gradually veering round to the ideology of Russian revolution, and were feeling the need to establish a Communist party. Among the attempts made was the one in Tashkent in 1920. This attempt, though appreciable in intentions, failed, because it had no relation with and roots in the living mass movements and ideological-political activities inside India.

 The Communist conference held in 1925 in Kanpur and the foundation of the CPI was a natural culmination of the process of the emerging Communist movement. The constituting groups and leaders were deeply involved in the workers’, peasants’ and intellectual movements. Groups were active in different industrial centres and journals were being published in increasing numbers. The role of SA Dange was more prominent, who educated generations of Communists in Marxism.

 Besides, the formation of the Communist party in Kanpur was closely related with the national movement, Congress in particular. The progressive leaders had a positive attitude to the formation of CPI and welcomed it. The Communists decided to be part of and work inside the Congress, using it as a national front. Kanpur CPI foundation conference was held at the same venue as that of the Congress session. Many Congressmen themselves were involved in its work.

 Workers, peasants, students and intellectuals were actively involved in the preparation and proceedings of the conference. The tallest and the most active figures of the Indian Communist and working class movement part in the preparation and actual holding of the conference, except those who were in jails, like Dange, Shaukat Usmani and a few others. Even they played their own role at that point of time.

 Thus there is huge difference between foundation of CPI in Kanpur (1925) and that in Tashkent (1920). The latter was a feeble and uncertain attempt, the former a well-organized event, which laid the foundation of countrywide Communist movement and party.

  There are a few other versions too, such as the CPI having been founded in 1933 etc, but they are not as important. We will try to clarify the issue citing historical decisions of united CPI itself and other sources.

 That the CPI was founded in 1925, and not in 1920 or on any other date, is quite clear. Besides, a misconception is circulating that it was MN Roy, who was the founder, or initiated the founding, of the CPI. An impression is wrongly being created that he was the ideological-political inspiration behind the foundation of CPI. This view/version has found its way even into some official text-books in the colleges and universities, as well as in some left circles. We will contradict this view also.

 Unfortunately, some left circles including those connected with CPI-M are propagating that CPI was founded in 1920, not in 1925. On this basis, the CPI-M and some others are celebrating ‘hundred years of CPI’, which should in fact be done in 2025. This does not square up with historical facts. We will consider some major ones here.

Spread of socialist and communist ideals in India

 We should also go into the interesting background, leading to the maturation of idea of formation of CPI and of emergence and evolution of Communist ideology. This background contributes in a major way to creating conditions for the formation of CPI in the country. It will show that the party was formed as part and parcel of evolution of the freedom movement, the workers’ and peasants’ movement and under the impact of the ideas of Russian revolution.

  Much before the foundation of CPI, the ideas of socialism, communism and Marxism had emerged and been spreading in the country. There were streams that led ultimately to creating conditions for emergence of Communist movement in the country and the establishment of CPI. We will not go too many details here except to build up a background. Swami Vivekanand was among the first to mention that he was a socialist and that one day society of equality and workers’ (‘shudras’) rule will definitely be established all over the planet. He was deeply influenced by the working class movements in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century, Europe was gripped by the workers’ movements led by the Second International. There were all kinds of socialist trends including Fabian, scientific and others. It was under these influences that Vivekanand was able to state that ‘I am a socialist’.

  M. Singaravelu, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Lala Lajpat Rai were already thinking in terms of establishing a workers’ or labor party in India on the lines of the workers’ parties of Europe. Tilak tried to found one in 1916. M Singaravelu is known as the ‘first Communist of South India’. He already was a member of the AICC (All India Congress Committee). He in fact established a Labor Kisan Party (Workers’ and Peasants’ Party or the WPP) in Madras, which was announced on the occasion of celebration of the first May Day in India in 1923. It was this WPP led mainly by Singaravelu, also by Velayuthan, Sri Krishna Swamy and Sankarlal, which organized the first May Day in India in 1923 along with the trade unions at two places on the Madras beach. That was one of the very first instances when the Red Flag was hoisted in India.

 Manifesto of the WPP or the Labor Kisan Party was distributed on the occasion. A WPP unit was established in Punjab later in May 1923. There followed the formation of other units of the WPP.

 The Madras-based central committee of the WPP sent a telegram in July 1923 to its units and affiliated organizations in Punjab, Bombay and Bengal to organize ‘Flag Day’ on 18 July 1923 and to hoist both the Tricolor and the Red Flag on the occasion. This was to demand the release of Gandhiji. The day was widely celebrated all over the country. (See, Singaravelu: The First Communist in South India, PPH, 1975)

 These events in the South and other ones created strong grounds for the formation of CPI in 1925.

Foundation of AITUC in 1920 creates a major condition

 The trade union movement in the meantime was growing rapidly all over the country. It would an interesting field of study to trace the development of the TU movement in all its multi-faceted character. Industrial and workers’ centers were emerging by the first and second decades of the 20th century, such as in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Kanpur, Karachi, and elsewhere. They became a major source of the Communist movement and of CPI. Textile, mines, port and dock workers, iron and steel, railways and such other industries and workers were important among them. Here it will not be out of place to mention that Mahatma Gandhi was a prominent TU leader in the second decade, when he organized and led the workers of Ahmedabad for a 37-day long strike for their minimum wages in 1918. It was after this struggle that the concept of the minimum wages became current in the working class movement.

 AITUC was founded in 1920 and it was a major political event, which contributed to creating conditions for the formation of CPI later on. It brought the Communist movement to qualitatively new levels, particularly in ideological andpolitical fields. It was a highly politicized workers’ movement. The speech of Lala Lajpat Rai, while inaugurating the AITUC foundation conference, is the proof of it. He dealt with three main points: class struggle, the struggle leading to socialism, and the Soviet Union as an example of socialist building. And Lajpat Rai was not a Communist; he belonged to the radical sections of the Indian National Congress. This is all the more significant.

 Later on, the Communists began to occupy major positions and play crucial roles in the AITUC, which was by this time turning towards the left and socialist ideologies. Dange, Ghate, Mirajkar, Muzaffar Ahmed, Singaravelu, Joglekar, Ajoy Ghosh, PC Joshi, Saklatvala, and a host of others helped create highly politicized workers’ groups and played important role in the AITUC and its unions in the railways, textile, post and telegraph, iron and steel, mining and other industries.

 In the meantime, the activities of the Communist groups were moving towards the formation of CPI. The Tashket Group in the meantime practically played no role in all these events except of course keeping contacts and writing articles, sending news, etc which was definitely important.

Emergence of Communist groups

  The politicization of AITUC contributed immensely to the formation of workers’ and Communist groups in the major industrial centers of India. Marxist newspapers began to be published in various centers, such as The Socialist by SA Dange, Langal by Muzaffar Ahmed, Kirti by Sohan Singh Josh, Labor Kisan Gazette by M Singaravelu, and others. They organized the workers in economic and political battles. They also did considerable political-ideological work.

 SA Dange especially emerged as the first Communist/Marxist theoretician and guide of the Communist and working class movement. He may be termed as the real working class leader, and not just a just TU leader. He wrote the first Marxist booklet, in India, Gandhi vs Lenin (1921),comparing and contrasting the politico-ideological views of Lenin and Gandhi. The booklet and other writings went considerable distance in political-ideological education of the rising initial generations of the Communists. His journal The Socialist in the early 1920s did a huge amount of Marxist ideological work among the rising intelligentsia, students, teachers and others. It brought out Marxist interpretation and analyses of issues in theoretical and practical fields, trade union and working class movements, Communist movement, history, philosophy, Indian tradition, and so on. It educated the first generations of Marxists.

 Communism and socialism appealed to wide sections of the educated, especially after the Russian Revolution. Its influence grew rapidly through emerging Communist groups and their activities. The revolution had a deep impact on the revolutionaries and freedom fighters inside India and abroad. Under the impact, the revolutionaries raised dreams of liberation and socialism. Among the major outcomes was the attempt to form CPI in India as well as abroad. The leaders and workers of various groups, the Marxist elements among the educated sections, the growing participation the freedom struggles, etc created conditions for spread of Marxism and Communism and for the ultimate foundation of the CPI.

 Thus the objective and material conditions for the rise of the Communist movement were mainly formed inside the country. The events in Europe and other countries were important no doubt, but they constituted secondary feature of the process. The Communist groups worked hard among the workers, students and other sections, creating Communist consciousness and groups to propagate ideas of scientific socialism.

 Communists and Socialists had been part and parcel of the freedom and national liberation movement from the very beginning. It was in 1921 that Maulana Hasrat Mohani, already a Communist, raised the question of full independence within the AICC in its Ahmedabad congress. It was rejected at the time. A group of Communists came into being within the Indian National Congress, working inside and outside and creating elements and groups of revolutionaries and Communists. By 1925, there was considerable number of Communists as members of the AICC as well as in some of the provincial Congress Committees such as in Bombay, Madras, Punjab, etc. M Singaravelu attended the Gaya session of the Indian National Congress (1922). He also worked actively within the Madras PCC (Provincial or Presidency Congress Committee).

 Lenin’s death was condoled in condolence meetings in 1924 organized all over the country by the WPP and other organizations. We are not going into the details of the many other activities during the build up to the foundation conference of 1925.

Evaluation of Role of MN Roy

 MN Roy was an important revolutionary who rose to become the member of the ECCI or the executive committee of the Communist International. He made an important contribution to the revolutionary and Communist movement, including in India. But it is wrong to attribute the role of founder of CPI. Unfortunately, even some textbooks propagate this mistaken idea.

 Roy emigrated from India in 1915 as an underground revolutionary, going to Indonesia to collect arms. He ultimately went to the US and became a Communist. He was to found the Socialist Party of Mexico in 1918, which a year later became the Communist Party, and later as its representative came to Moscow to attend Second Comintern congress in 1920, never to go back.

 Lenin asked MN Roy to prepare a thesis on the colonial question at the 2nd congress of Comintern (1920). There were sharp debates between the revolutionaries of the East (the colonial countries) about the attitude to be adopted to the ongoing national liberation and freedom movements in Turkey, Iran, India, China, Indochina etc. Unfortunately Roy produced a document which was thoroughly sectarian and damaging to the revolutionary movement in the colonial countries. Therefore it was totally rejected by Lenin and the Comintern majority. They have come to be known as the ‘Supplementary Theses on the Colonial Question’. Dr G Adhikari in his Documents of the History of Communist Party of India, Volume One (1917-22), has given a detailed version of it, including the facsimile of the original typed copy of the Roy’s Supplementary Theses, in which Lenin made the cuts himself.

 Lenin presented the ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’. He emphasized the need for “a determined struggle against attempts to give a Communist coloring to bourgeois democratic liberation trends in the backward countries.” (See the above-mentioned volume by Dr Adhikari, p 196) He underlined that the Communists must support every national and bourgeois democratic movement against imperialism. “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it...” (Ibid)

 Task of the Communist elements in the oppressed countries must be to create ‘revolutionary parties’ and not just Communist parties in name only. Lenin was firmly against any haste in the formation of CPs without the maturity of the objective situation. The formation of classes was not sufficiently developed. He conveyed this to several India revolutionaries also. Lenin told the Communists of the East: “You will have to base yourselves on the bourgeois nationalism which is awakening...”(Ibid, p197; Lenin CW 30, p162)

 Lenin also formulated for the first time the concept of anti-imperialist united front.

 The formulations were opposed by MN Roy, Sultan-Zade (Persia), Serrati (Italy), and some others. There were heated debates, but Lenin stood his ground. Roy and some others, including the above-mentioned, were of the opinion that aligning with bourgeois democratic movement would only harm the proletarian movement. Therefore, the proletariat must first overthrow this leadership, including that of Gandhiji in India, and then take over the leadership to carry on national freedom movement.

 This view was rejected.

Efforts in Tashkent, 1920

 Researches into original documents of revolutionary and Communist movements by (late) Dr G Adhikari, and many other documents, show that the initiative to form CPI in Tashkent in 1920 did not come from the Comintern or its representative MN Roy. Roy himself had denied that he took any initiative. It came from a group of ‘Muhajirs’ and some other revolutionaries residing in the Soviet Union and other countries like Germany. Some members of the Indian Revolutionary Association like MPBT Acharya and Abdul Rab were also involved. Details of names and minutes have been published on several occasions, and as such we will avoid them here.

 Unfortunately, People’s Democracy and some other sources tend to highlight Roy, as also treat Tashkent meet as the foundation of CPI. This is factually wrong.

 Otherwise too, there is much confusion in history about the Tashkent event. There even existed two or more groups, each claiming to be the “CPI”. There were several trends among the revolutionaries abroad before and during 1920s. Some of them tried to form a ‘CPI’, and such groups did some useful work of propaganda. One attempt led to the formation of Tashkent based ‘CPI’. But this ‘party’ never could function as an effective organization and clear-cut aims. While MN Roy did not agree with the convening of the meeting in Tashkent in 1920, he nevertheless attended it. He later tried to force the Communists in India to form a party in a hasty manner. This the revolutionaries and the Communists in India did not agree with. The Tashkent Group had practically no live contacts with the emerging Communist movement in India at the time, except through correspondence.

 Of course, the Tashkent group made useful contribution by way of propaganda of freedom movement and socialism, but they really could not function as a ‘Communist Party’.

 People’s Democracy is again in the wrong regarding role of MN Roy. Roy in fact did not take the initiative to convene the Tashkent meeting, nor did he agree to the formation of ‘Communist Party of India’ there. He had his own reasons for this approach. Roy writes in his Memoirs: “There was no sense in a few emigrant individuals calling themselves the Communist Party... knowing fully well that it would be a nominal thing, although it could function as the nucleus of a real Communist Party to be organized eventually...I had not spoken to them (Muhajirs) at all of Communism.”

 In contradiction with certain interpretations such as are current on the social media and some left circles, Roy further says: “I did not claim to represent anybody but myself.” “I did not approve of the formation of the emigrant Communist Party, and did not believe that it had any right to speak on behalf of the workers of India, not to mention the Indian people as a whole.”

  This clarifies the widespread misconception that MN Roy founded the Communist Party of India and that he was an ideological inspiration for the Indian Communists. It is true that Roy was in contact through his periodicals with the Indian Communists, but the latter did not get on well with him and did not agree with his approach. The attitude of Adhikari, Dange, Ghate, and even others like Muzaffar Ahmed etc make this amply clear. Muzaffar Ahmed has sharply criticized MN Roy in his works including in Myself and the Communist Party of India. Communists in India carried on their own ideological and political work.

 ‘Tashkent Party’ died down after some time. Hardly a few meetings were held subsequently, with no serious activities abroad. It had practically no contact with the Communist in India, and no coordination or joint work. The Communists in India functioned in various centers, and worked as a party since 1925. The Communists in India never recognized the ‘party’ formed in Tashkent in 1920 even after the foundation of CPI in 1925.

 ‘Tashkent CPI’ disappeared in the course of time for lack of perspective and ideology and simply disappeared. It cannot be treated in any way as the founding organization of the CPI.

 Considering these hard facts, it is surprising that the central organ of CPI-M, People’s Democracy, should treat 1920 as the foundation date of CPI in its recent issue of 7 October 2019. The CPI-M is celebrating 100 years of the ‘foundation of CPI’, but this does not square up with historical facts. Besides, the People’s Democracy also gives too much importance to the role of MN Roy and blows him out of all proportions. As we have seen, Roy himself clearly stated that he did not agree with the purpose of the Tashkent meeting and did not treat it as the foundation meeting.

CPI Founded in Kanpur, 1925

  CPI formed in Kanpur in 1925 was a natural culmination of the freedom movement, as also of the working class struggles, combined with the impact of the ideas of Russian revolution. Russian revolution deeply radicalized the worker, peasant and freedom struggles in India. The mass struggles were led and study circles were formed by the emerging intelligentsia drawn towards Marxism and Communism. The Kanpur conference was held near the Congress pandal, symbolizing the close cooperation with the freedom movement. The formation of CPI also was the culmination of the coming together of working class groups and other groups, who had been doing lot of ideological and political work since a few years. Kanpur conference finalized the formation of the central executive committee and election of its office-bearers, adoption of a Constitution, membership form and red flag. It evolved in the course of time, to take on the form it subsequently adopted.

 This process never broke up, and continued through evolution of the organization as well as through ideological-political struggle in the national liberation movement. The organization skillfully combined national and class tasks in a dialectical unity.

Foundation date of CPI: issue clinched in united CPI itself

United CPI discussed the question of date of foundation on several occasions. One occasion was the query from the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1959 as to the date of foundation of CPI. At that time several dates were in circulation, particularly 1920 and 1925. To put an end to the confusion, the Central Secretariat in its meeting held on 18 August 1959, decided that 1925 should finally be accepted. The meeting was attended by Ajoy Ghosh, BT Ranadive, PC Joshi, M Basavapunniah, ZA Ahmed, SA Dange, Bhupesh Gupta, AK Gopalan and others. The minutes written in the handwriting of Basavapunniah sstated: “Date of the foundation of the CPI: 1925.” No other date was put forward by any of those present.

 Letter was sent to the Editor of Review of Indonesia on 20 August 1959, written and signed on behalf of the CPI secretariat by BT Ranadive. The letter stated: “The Communist Party of India was founded in the month of December in the year 1925. Even before that, there were individual Communists and Communist groups working in different parts in the country. But it was in December 1925 at a meeting of representatives of various groups in the country held at Kanpur that the Communist Party of India was formed.”

 Bengal state council of CPI in 1960 wanted to celebrate the 40th anniversary of CPI in 1961, taking the foundation date as 1920. The acting general secretary of CPI, EMS Namboodiripad, wrote to the West Bengal state council of the party on 10 June 1960:  “We understand that your state council has adopted a resolution to the effect that in 1961 we should celebrate the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the Party.

 “The secretariat discussed the matter and has come to the conclusion that this is a question which cannot be decided by any other organ of the Party except the National Council. It will therefore be appropriate to take up the issue in the next meeting of the National Council.”

 The Central Secretariat of CPI issued a statement on 5 June 1963, under the heading ‘Foundation Day of Communist Party of India’, saying:

 “We wish to inform all concerned that the Communist Party of India was founded in December 1925 at a conference of Communists held in Kanpur. Even prior to this, there were some seven Communist groups who functioned in several parts of the country and received guidance from the Communist International. But the party known as the Communist Party of India came to be formed at the above-mentioned conference held in Kanpur in December 1925, which was attended by more than 500 delegates. Prominent among those who attended were: Muzaffar Ahmed from Calcutta; SV Ghate, RS Nimbkar and JP Bagerhatta from Bombay; Abdul Majeed from Lahore, and CK Iyenger and Singaravelu Chettiar from Madras.

  “When the conference met in December 1925, both comrades SA Dange and Shaukat Usmani were in jail.

 “The party executive met on December 28 and elected Comrade SV Ghate as one of the general secretaries.” (New Age, 9 June 1963)

 CPI gave proper respect to the Tashkent Group and treated it more as a ‘Foreign Buro’.

  Thus the point here is that the leadership of the united CPI itself had finally clinched the issue of the date of foundation of CPI. It had unequivocally decided that the year was 1925 and not 1920. The party’s central secretariat, which decided it, included some of the towering leaders who later joined the CPI-M, as is clear from the names mentioned above.

  SV Ghate also has written in detail about 1925 as the foundation date of CPI. (New Age, 30 August 1970, and elsewhere in his memoirs etc.)

  Above-mentioned facts put the answers to the question in proper perspective, and establish once again that the CPI was founded in 1925, and not in 1920.

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