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Mainstream, VOL LV No 37 New Delhi September 2, 2017

Lucid, Factual, Detailed, Balanced Account of Communism in Bengal

Saturday 2 September 2017, by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta



Undivided Communist Movement in Bengal: Background—India by Bhanudeb Dutta; People’s Publishing House, New Delhi; 2016; pages 344; Rs 450.00.

This book, written by a veteran Communist, is an attempt to understand the emergence and growth of the communist movement in Bengal against the background of how the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) changed its course at different moments of history from a small beginning till 1964, when the Party witnessed its first split between the CPI and the CPI-M. The central focus of the book is Bengal but, understandably, the shifts in the central line of the Party deeply influenced the develop-ments in Bengal too. So it is an attempt to understand the particular through the lens of the general, the micro with reference to the macro. Methodologically, there is nothing wrong with it but there always remains the risk of the particular being overshadowed by the general. The author of this book, however, has handled this problem quite deftly, effecting a delicate balance between the all-India perspective and the specifics of Bengal communism.

In fact, there is hardly any good book in English which provides a proper chronicle of how the communist movement flourished in Bengal from its inception in the early 1920s till the time of the split and, viewed from this angle, the author has provided an excellent and comprehensive account of this long period spanning almost five decades. The importance of the volume lies especially in the fact that the source materials range from primary party documents to memoirs of party veterans, party newspapers and journals, published by the undivided CPI from time to time at the central and the regional level.

In the very first chapter the author has made it clear that it has always been wrong on the part of our nationalist leaders to claim that freedom from British rule was attained primarily through the struggle of the nationalist freedom fighters, notably Gandhiji. The Communists were no less sincere in their love for freedom and in their struggle against British rule. Furthermore, the legacy of the communist move-ment in India as well as Bengal has to be traced to the long, radical heritage of the workers’ and peasants’ struggle as well as uprisings and protest movements launched by various oppressed streams of society as expressions of anti-colonial struggles and movements.

Divided into 15 chapters the first four chapters cover the pre-independence phase, that is, it ends with August, 1947. The focus of the book being development of the communist movement in Bengal, after 1947 the scenario shifts from undivided Bengal to West Bengal. The pre-1947 period covers the formative years of the CPI in Bengal, emphasising the impact of the November Revolution and Comintern on the shaping of communist ideas organisationally as well as ideologically.

In the case of Bengal two factors were quite unique in determining the thrusts of the communist movement in future. One was that here the communist Left drew its resource from streams which were primarily militant in their orientation, that is, the Andaman returnees, those who were prosecuted under various conspiracy cases, militants coming from the working class and peasant movements etc. The other feature was the intellectual inclination of many of the leaders of the Bengal CPI (that is, Bhowani Sen, Abdul Halim, Somnath Lahiri). This was particularly manifest in the proliferation of journals and magazines brought out under the auspices of the CPI in Bengal throughout the 1930s and 1940s (pp. 60-62). Consequently, the debates and discussions that rocked the Bengal Party from time to time were marked by a high theoretical level, well-versed as many of them were in Marxism. Thus, the Bengal CPI was intellectually fortified by the contributions of stalwarts like Satyendra Narayan Mazumdar, Gopal Haldar, Niren Roy, Susobhan Sarkar, Narahari Kaviraj, Chinmohan Sehanavis, Ghulam Quddus and many others. This led to sharp debates in the Party on issues concerning the Party line on art and literature, united front tactics, international communist movement and many other related issues. This tradition, in fact, continued for a long time within the Bengal party in the post-independence period too. This was also the period largely associated with P.C. Joshi, who to a large extent immensely contributed to the flourishing of this atmosphere. The author has rightly highlighted the importance of the Joshi period (1936-1947) in this respect.

Chapters 5 to 15 cover post-independence Bengal till the time of the split in 1964 in the all-India context. The author has analysed all the Party Congresses, beginning with the Second Congress (1948) and ending with the Sixth Congress (1961), examining how the central line of the Party underwent major shifts from Left-sectarianism (Second Congress) to a kind of Centrism (Sixth Congress), the change of leadership from B.T. Ranadive to Ajoy Ghosh, the beginning of ideological differences within the CPI since 1956 (Fourth Congress) on the Stalin question and the issue of peaceful coexistence in the aftermath of the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, three major General Elections (1951-52, 1957, 1962) and the electoral performance of the CPI in Parliament, the Chinese aggression and the ideological controversy in the Party centring around it, numerous all-India mass movements led by the CPI on different fronts, the gradual crystallisation of two rival groups in the Party, the point of departure being the party programme and, more specifically, the stage of the revolution (national democratic or people’s democratic) and class nature of the Indian National Congress, etc.

These had their impact on Bengal and the communist movement in Bengal took shape in Bengal accordingly. This was most starkly manifest in the deliberations of the State Coferences of the Bengal CPI, mostly held on the eve of the All-India Party Congresses. The author needs to be congratulated for providing the readers with detailed information of all the conferences—a painstaking job but done very meticulously. From these accounts and the author’s excellent comprehensive survey of the multifarious activities of the CPI on the Bengal front two things become clearly evident. At one level the period 1947-64 was marked by leadership changes and shifts in the ideological line of the Party; yet this was the time when the CPI spearheaded major mass movements, enjoying the confidence of the people. The author has thereby covered, howsoever briefly, all represen-tative movements of the period in which the CPI played a commendable role and emerged as a fighting force, voicing the demands of the oppressed. The chronicle of events and move-ments testifies to the growing popularity and strength of the Party and also explains why the CPI in Bengal was held in high esteem even by the ordinary man in the street, the central explanatory factor being the impression that the CPI was a party of struggle and thereby aligned with the masses.

At another level, however, the Bengal CPI was increasingly getting weakened, as serious ideological differences were corroding the Party from within. From the author’s analysis it is quite clear that this process had started long back, as early as the late 1940s, when Joshi’s line of underestimating the class question rather than the national question began to be contested by sections within the Bengal CPI. Consequently, the Left-extremist line adopted in the Second Congress (1948), howsoever self-destructive it was, did get the support of that section in the Party which questioned Joshi’s line. Eventually it is this division which led to sharp polarisation between two wings of the Bengal CPI, as revealed, most notably, in the deliberations of the different State Conferences. From the author’s analysis it follows that the differences were irreconcilable, since over the years it came down to a difference between “Left sectarianism” and “Right revisionism”, represented by two sections of the leadership. These differences centred around all issues, namely, attitude towards the Nehru Government, the Chinese aggression, ranging from the Stalin question to the understanding of imperialism and peaceful co existence, the stage of the revolution in India, the Sino-Soviet dispute and the differences between the Soviet and the Chinese Party on issues concerning international communism etc.

Furthermore, two points need to be stressed. The author’s account explains that in the Bengal CPI the trend towards “Left sectarianism” was overwhelmingly strong and it is this section which in 1964, following the split, joined the CPI-M. Again, besides the polarised presence of two wings inside the Bengal CPI there was a small third group too that broadly subscribed to Centrism. But despite the presence of this third group no reconciliation of the two major warring groups could be effected. The author’s detailed analysis of the situation in the Bengal CPI and the course of events leading to 1964 demands especially careful reading (Chapters 13-16).

The book provides a really very compre-hensive and balanced account of communism in Bengal. The author deserves warm congratulations particularly for the reason that this book is actually a summarised version of a 15-volume work in Bengali on the documented history of Bengal communism, published earlier between 2006 and 2015. There are two errors that need to be rectified. Birendranath Chattopadhyaya should be spelt as Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and when mention is made of the Kolkata Committee of the CPI in the early 1930s, “Kolkata” should be replaced by “Calcutta”, because there was no “Kolkata” at that time. It was known as the “Calcutta Committee” of the CPI. It is a book very lucidly written, full of facts and detailed analysis. For any discerning reader interested in Left politics in India this is a must buy.

The reviewer is a former Surendra Nath Banerjee Professor of Politcal Science, University of Calcutta.

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