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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Rajni Palme Dutt, a Genuine Friend of India

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Tikaram Sharma


Book Review

Rajni Palme Dutt—A Biography by Dr Panchanan Saha; Publishers: Biswabiksha, Kolkata; pages: 232; price: Rs 150.

Dr Panchanan Saha is a renowned scholar who has written books on various topics including biographies, labour movements, communism etc.

In all there were fourteen publications to his credit till 2004. His book, Rajni Palme Dutt—A Biography, was published in 2004 itself. Rajani Palme Dutt (RPD) became Dr Saha’s guide and philosopher and helped a lot in his political and academic works in Britain. Thus Dr Saha got an opportunity to study and understand this multifaced towering personality. This book, therefore, is an outcome of his close association with RPD for quite some time.

Rajni Palme Dutt, son of an Indian born physician, Upendra Krishna, and a Swedish lady, was born on June 13, 1896 in London. He, being a brilliant and serious student of History, attempted to go deeper in order to find reasons behind the social inequality. He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1914 in Balliol College, Oxford. During the First World War he was jailed for his anti-war agitation. Soon he realised that Marxism was the only way of salvation of the oppressed people all over the world; so he became a Marxist even before the historic Russian Revolution. He was expelled from the university on the charge of propagating Marxism among the students. On the same charge he along with his elder brother, Clemens Palme Dutt (C.P. Dutt), was on close watch in Cambridge University. However, RPD was later on permitted to appear in the examination in Oxford, and he passed it with high marks. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1921.

The condition of the common man in British India was very miserable. The Chartist leader, Ernst Jones, through the columns of his People’s Paper lashed out at Britain’s colonial exploitation and oppression; “on its colonies the sun never sets, but the blood never dries,” he wrote. H.M Hyndman himself denounced, in 1904, the British oppression in India as “the most criminal misrule that has ever affected humanity”.

RPD through his journal Labour Monthly raised the demands of workers and peasants of India continuously apart from strongly supporting the cause of its independence. The journal was unique of its kind in which the leading personalities and writers of the world of that period contributed articles. From India, the main contributors were Mahatma Gandhi, J.L. Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, S.A. Dange, V.K. Krishna Menon, M.G. Desai, N.M. Joshi, P.C. Joshi, Sheikh Abdullah and many others. (p. 53)

RPD was a great author. Besides being the editor of the Labour Monthly journal, he wrote several books on social and political issues. His first book Two Internationals appeared in March 1920. The other important books written by him were—Modern India in 1926, Fascism and Social Revolution in 1934, India Today in 1940, World Politics 1918-35, Crises of Britain and British Empire in 1949, The Problems of Contemporary History in 1963 and the Internationale in 1964. The Dutt-Bradley thesis was jointly authored by RPD and Ben Bradley in 1936; it became a guiding force to the Indian Communists and greatly helped the CPI to make a correct turn and forge ties with the national movement. Commenting on his books, Modern India and India Today, Dr Adhikari said:

Modern India written by Rajni Palme Dutt in 1926 and later on his bigger book India Today (1940 and 1946) inspired and reared a whole generation of early Marxists. (pp. 45-46)

RPD had great affinity for India and its
people. Though he was critical of Gandhi’s ideology, he had always praised it for its positive contribution in the Indian freedom movement. According to him,

The central significance of this period (1919-1922) consisted in the fact that the national movement became a mass movement. The achievement of Gandhi consisted in that he, almost alone of all the leaders, sensed this and reached out to the masses. This was the first great achievement of Gandhi. He did at one point reach the masses.

The book reveals that despite his severe criticism of many aspects of Gandhian thought, RPD never hesitated to get Gandhi’s support. During his parliamentary election in 1946, he requested Gandhiji for a message for his support. Gandhi immediately responded saying: “I do wish him success in his campaign.” At one stage the CPI was totally isolated due to its opposition to the ‘Quit India’ movement and was out from the mainstream of the national movement. RPD took the initiative and got a message from Mahatma Gandhi which had definitely helped the CPI to approach the nationalists with new courage.

RPD met Jawaharlal Nehru by chance at Lausanne, Switzerland in February 1936. Both had discussions on the international situation, the Indian National Congress and freedom movement in India, and the fate of Communists in India. According to the book, “Nehru is said to have promised to render every support for the realisation of the ideas as elaborated by Dutt”. This appeared in his speech as the Congress President in Lucknow in 1936. However, this speech was criticised by a number of people including Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari, Vallabhbhai Patel, Jai Ram Das, Daulat Ram, J.B. Kripalani, S.D. Dev and Jamuna Lal Bajaj.

Subhash Chandra Bose was also equally impressed with RPD. It appears that some of his observations on world affairs and certain theoretical questions were modified by his discussions with Palme Dutt and the influence of the Dutt-Bradley thesis is apparent in his Haripura speech when he referred to the Indian National Congress. He said: “This brings us to the vexed problem of collective affiliation of workers and peasants organisations to the Congress.” (p. 81)


RPD had a tremendous influence on Indian students in England. He along with Saklatwala used to organise study circles to teach them Marxism. Some of the students who were influenced by RPD were Bhupesh Gupta, Jyoti Basu, Sajjad Zaheer, Hazra Begum, Dr K.M. Ashraf, Mahmoodzaffar, Dr Z.A. Ahmed, Mohan Kumaramangalam, Parvati Krishnan, Renu Chakravartty, Indrajit Gupta, N.K. Krishnan, P.N. Haksar, Arun Bose, Mohit Sen, Dilip Bose and some others. Indian communist groups were organised separately at London, Oxford and Cambridge.

RPD was a prominent Marxist and staunch supporter of the Soviet Union and tried to enrich Marxism through his writings. There were repressions during Stalin’s era and Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but he had his own logic to justify them. He was a guide, well-wisher and supporter of the CPI and a good friend of the Indian masses. Events like the division of India on religious ground or the Chinese attack in 1962 pained him much. Equally painful for him was the division in the Indian communist movement in 1964. He played a reconciliatory role between the Congress and CPI as the latter was being targeted by Congress-men for its opposition to the ‘Quit India’ movement and collaboration with the British war efforts in the name of worldwide anti-fascist war. It was RPD who came to India in 1946 to cover the Cabinet Mission as a special correspondent of the Daily Worker and met top leaders of the Congress party including Mahatma Gandhi and Vallabhbhai Patel in this regard. After prolonged discussions with them he was able to bridge the gap between the Congress and CPI.

B.T. Ranadive became the General Secretary of the CPI at the Second Party Congress (1948) held in Calcutta replacing P.C. Joshi, and the party fell into the grip of a Left-sectarian-adventurist line which branded the newly won freedom as sham independence. The Telangana armed struggle was unnecessarily prolonged. The Nehru Government was termed as an agent and junior partner of imperialism and therefore had to be overthrown in order to establish the worker-peasant rule. The party gave the call for a nationwide railway strike on March 9, 1949; it never materialised but the militant railway union said good bye to the Communist Party once and for all. The membership of the party fell drastically and it was isolated from the masses. RPD warned the party in his letter dated August 15, 1949 that the political line taken by the CPI was not a healthy one but the Left-sectarian leadership started a campaign against RPD and the British Communist Party.

RPD praised Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in the Korean war and thus he departed from the inter-national communist movement’s understanding on the Indian situation. During this period an editorial appeared in For a Lasting Peace, For a People’s Democracy, probably written by RPD (as per the book), wherein it was suggested to the Indian Communists that in order to defend the national independence and freedom of India from Anglo-American imperialists, reactionary big bourgeoisie and feudal princes, they should unite with all classes, parties, groups and organisations willing to defend the independence and freedom of their country. An inner-party ideological struggle began and pressure from other corners also compelled the CPI to abandon the ultra-Left sectarian policy. Thus RPD saved the CPI from Left-wing adventurism. The Central Committee of the party admitted:

R.P. Dutt ... has been helping our party in innumerable ways since its inception from the bourgeois-chauvinist and sectarian blunders of the PB. (p. 125)

The entire book has been divided into 14 chapters. There are three appendices at the end containing important articles written by RPD and his brother, C. Palme Dutt. In fact the book provides glimpses of the contemporary history of the Communist Party of India. Some of the facts mentioned in the book are very important but quite unknown to the Communist cadre. Its Hindi edition should be brought out shortly for those who do not know English.

The reviewer is a trade union leader and presently the Secretary, Delhi State Committee of the All India Trade Union Congress.

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