Does 2020 Mark 100 Years of CPI - or 2025?

[The Communist Party of India (Marxist) holds that the Community Party of India as October 17, 1920 was formed at Tashkent with seven members - MN Roy, Evelyn Roy-Trent, Abani Mukherjee, Rosa Fitingov, Mohammad Ali, Mohamad Shafiq and Acharya. CPIM is therefore observing 2019-20 as the centenary of the CPI. But does Tashkent really mark the birth of the Communist Party in India? CPI, as well as CPIML, hold that the Communist Party of India was formed only in 1925 at its first conference at Kanpur. To support this reasoning, we publish excerpts from the relevant pages of the Communist Movement In India: Historical Perspective and Important Documents, Vol. I (1917-39), edited with an Introduction by Arindam Sen, Partha Ghosh, Samkalin Prakashan, Patna, 1991.]  

THE Government of India correctly identified the basic source of the Bolshevik menace in the internal conditions of India. In a very revealing note, it warned : “If India is not to share the fate of Russia, there must be a deliberate effort ... to improve the conditions of the masses and to make them less discontented.” In some other notes it drew attention of the Secretary of State in London to the inspiration the national movement in India was already drawing from the Russian revolution.

It was in this atmosphere surcharged with a new hope, a new passion for liberation that the most dynamic revolutionists of India got attracted first towards the new “Red” heroes and then towards Marxism or communism because that was — they were told — the great secret behind the Bolshevik miracle. They came basically from three backgrounds:

  • (a) revolutionary patriots working from Germany (e.g., the Berlin group led by Virendranath Chattopadhyaya), Afghanistan (e.g., M Barkatullah of the “Provisional Government of Independent India” established in Kabul), USA (most notably Ghadrites like Rattan Singh and Santokh Singh who revived the movement in early 1920s) etc. and roving revolutionaries like MN Roy and Abani Mukherjee;

  • b) national revolurionaries from the Pan-Islamic Khilafat movement and the Hirjat movement who went to Afghanistan and Turkey during and after the First World War (e.g., Shaukat Usmani, Mohammad Ali Sepassi etc.); and

  • (c) radical patriots working from within the Congress movement or without who, disillusioned and shocked at the sudden withdrawal of the non-cooperating movement in 1921, turned to socialism and the working class movement in search of a new path (e.g., associates of Dange in Bombay, of Muzaffar Ahmad in Calcutta and of Singaravelu in Madras; the Inquilab group of Lahore; the Babbar Akali faction of the Akali movement etc.).

The common urge that propelled these diverse forces was the liberation of the motherland. Herein lay the original impulse of communism in India. Of these three streams the first two joined together in the Soviet Union to form a self-styled ‘CPI’, but being cut off from the internal dynamics of Indian society this combination never developed beyond an emigre communist group. It was the third stream that arose out of the evolution of the Indian society itself and therefore became the real Communist Party of India. Before we take up a detailed study of that vital process, let us, for the sake of historicity, record the abortive attempt at party formation in a foreign country.

Initiatives in the Soviet Union

The chronology of events relating to the emergence of an Indian communist group in the Soviet Union is as follows.

  1. Mahendra Pratap, arrived in Tashkent in February 1918, followed by Barkatullah in March 1919 who came as a special envoy of Emir Amanullah of Afghanistan though personally more interested in the freedom of India. These left-wing nationalists became and remained good friends — though not members — of the “CPI” when it was formed. On May 7,1919, they along with a few others including MPBT Acharya and Abdul Rub met Lenin. Acharya — earlier a follower of Savarkar and colleague of Chattopadhyaya — became one of the founder members of the Tashkent CPI.

  2. In January-April 1920, nine radical nationalists arrived in Tashkent and seven of them including Mohammad Ali, Mohammad Shafiq (these two were on a mission of the “Provisional Government”), Abdul Majid and Abdul Fazil were constituted into an “Indian Communists Section” of the Sovinter-prop on April 17,1920. This Section produced propaganda materials like “What Soviet Power Is Like” (pamphlet), “Bolshevism and the Islamic Nations” (a pamphlet by Barkatullah), “To the Indian Brothers” (appeal), and the Urdu magazine Zamindar, the first and only issue of which appeared in May 1920 on the initiative of Mohammad Shafiq.

  3. MN Roy arrived in Moscow in May or June 1920 as one of the two delegates of the Mexican Communist Party to the Second Congress of the Comintern (July-August, 1920), though everybody knew and accepted that he actually represented India. In this Congress, apart from MN Roy and his wife Evelyn Trent-Roy, the following Indians also participated : Abani Mukherjee, MPBT Acharya (they had consultative voice but no vote; the former was mentioned as a left socialist and the latter as a delegate from the Indian Revolutionary Association in Tashkent) and Mohammad Shafiq (an observer delegate). Roy was the only one with a decisive vote.

  4. Before the Second Congress closed, a “General Plan and Programme of Work for the Indian Revolution” was drawn up by Roy and few others. As MA Persits shows, “the General Plan posed three major tasks: first, the convocation of an all-India Congress of revolutionaries and the establishment of an all-India Revolutionary centre capable of preparing and holding, in particular, this congress, second, the immediate formation of a Communist Party of India and, third, the immediate launching of the military and political training of revolutionary forces.”

  5. The “CPI” in exile was formed on October 17,1920 in Tashkent. In the meeting of December 15, a three-member Executive was elected with Roy, Shafiq and Acharya. Shafiq and Acharya were elected secretary and chairman of the Executive Committee respectively. From a letter dated 30.12.20 from Mukherjee to SP Gupta, an Indian nationalist leader, it appears that between 15 and 20 December three more persons joined the party, taking the number to 13 (7 + 3+3). The new-born party worked “under the political guidance of the Turkestan Bureau of the Comintern”.  

  6. Formation of a communist party or group remains incomplete without at least a programme, and Abani Mukherjee prepared one towards the end of 1920. This was, however, rejected on the insistence of Roy. As for “international recognition” of the CPI formed in Tashkent, that remains a disputed question, with some like SA Dange saying it was not recognised and other like Muzaffar Ahmad declaring it was. The facts are (a) an official letter of its formation was despatched to the CC, Communist Party of Turkestan and the Turkestan Bureau of Comintern, (b) the Turkestan Bureau and the Executive Committee of the Comintern did take certain measures to solve certain political and organisational problems of Indian Communists and other revolutionaries and (c) the list of the parties and organisations invited to the Third Congress of the Comintern (endorsed by the Small Bureau of the ECCI late in April or early in May 1921) mentioned “India : The Communist Groups (consultative vote)”. From these facts — and no less importantly, from the Leninist understanding of the essential requirements of a communist party — the truth emerges that the Comintern did accept the formation of CPI at Tashkent as a fait accompli and therefore as a starting point, but refused to recognise it as a communist party in the complete sense of the term.

  7. Since the Tashkent formation side-tracked some other revolutionaries who were gradually coming over to Marxism, an All-India Revolutionary Conference was sought to be organised. The Comintern took special interest in this, and between January to May 1921 two important groups arrived in Moscow: from Tashkent the members of “Indian Revolutionary Association” led by Abdur Rabb Barq (also known as Abdul Rab) and from Berlin — Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, GAK Luhani, Dr. Bhupendra Nath Dutta, Khankojee, Agnes Smedly and others. The latter group presented their theses on India and world revolution, authored by Chattopadhyaya, Luhani and Khankojee, to Lenin and the Executive Committee of Communist International (ECCI). Abdur Rabb also presented a few policy statements. For more than a year the Comintern, through its Eastern Commission and India Commission, tried to forge unity among the Roy, Chattopadhyaya and Rabb groups, but in vain. All of them suffered more or less from individualistic sectarianism and were engaged in a race for exclusive recognition and patronage of the Comintern; the political differences were not insignificant either. The minutes of several meetings between Roy, Acharya and Rabb, held under Soviet auspices, show that the main political conflict arose “on the ground of differences over the methods of work among Indian immigrants”. Acharya accused that Roy used to coerce Indian immigrants to join the Party organisation, while Rabb criticised Roy for following, “the erroneous policy of communist propaganda which is pointless at the present time”. In his (Rubb’s) opinion, “nationalism had to be used, too, in considerable manner.” Given these acute personal and political disagreements, the proposed conference of communist and pro-communist national revolutionaries never took place. But the prolonged discussions in Moscow, in which Lenin also sometimes took part, were not entirely fruitless. While some like Luhani joined the communist party shortly afterwards, others like Chattopadhyaya did the same later on.

From this record of events it is not difficult to see why the group formed in Tashkent-Moscow during 1920-21 was still-born. Hastily formed without any ground-work, it had no constitution or programme. In fact it was a handiwork of Roy to secure himself a berth in the Communist International (CI). What is most important, the Emigre revolutionaries had no roots in the masses of India and their subjective creation was never internalised in the society it sought to transform. So in no sense can the Tashkent formation be regarded as the formation of CPI.

MN Roy, however, lost no time to try and build political bridges to India through journals, manifestoes, letters etc. and by sending emissaries and funds. In these efforts he was fully financed and politically assisted by the CI, on whose behalf he was acting (he was inducted into its leadership in 1921 itself). The emissaries and the funds were not of much help, but the Comintern reports and guidelines contained in magazines edited by Roy certainly were, notwithstanding the fact that many if not most copies of these magazines used to be intercepted by the police. Besides, Roy made the first attempts at a Marxist interpretation of the various facets of the Indian political scene.

The First Communist Conference in India

 One of the many curious events in the history of communism in India was that the credit for organising the historic conference which united the scattered communist groups into one party goes to a person named Satyabhakta who deserted this very party — the CPI — within days after foundation. This Satyabhakta was a former member of a patriotic-terrorist group in UP, and a disillusioned disciple of Gandhi who after the withdrawal of the non-cooperation movement got interested in Soviet Russia and communism. He set up an open “Indian Communist Party” in mid-1924 with a membership, according to his own claim, of 78 persons which grew to 150 by 1925. He felt emboldened to form the party openly when in May 1924 the Public Prosecutor (PP) in the Kanpur Conspiracy Case made a statement to the effect that the accused was being prosecuted not because they held or propagated communist views, but because they conspired to overthrow the government. From this Satyabhakta inferred that a communist party which is open and above board and fully and manifestly Indian, i.e., having no connection with Bolshevism or the Comintern, would not perhaps incur the wrath of the authorities.

The existing communist groups did not take this party seriously (nor did Cecil Kaye, the British intelligence chief, though Satyabhakta was closely watched), but when he announced the decision to organise what he called the “First Indian Communist Conference” in Kanpur late in 1925, they took notice and sat up. Already in jail there was a discussion among them on the propriety or otherwise of holding an open conference to set up the Communist Party on an all-India basis utilising the above-mentioned statement of the PP in the Kanpur case. The idea was Dange’s, so the Bombay group (Dange himself was in jail) co-operated with Satyabhakta and participated wholeheartedly in the Kanpur Conference (25-28 December 1925). Ahmad was against the idea but, released from jail just three months before the conference on the ground of severe tuberculosis, he also attended. Delegates from other places were also present.

The conference was attended by 300 delegates according to the February 1926 number of Kirti (a communist-sponsored Punjabi magazine), though intelligence sources put the figure at 500. The British communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala had sent a short message to the “Congress which I hope will be the beginning of a large and stable Communist movement in India”; this was read out at the first session, followed by the speech of the reception committee chairman Hasrat Mohani (who had raised the famous “Independence Resolution” at the Ahmedabad session of Congress in December 1921). Next came the presidential address by M Singaravelu.

Party Foundation Day: 26 December, 1925

The very first set of documents of the CPI (adopted at the Kanpur Conference) naturally carry many imperfections both on political and organisational questions.

Despite all these major weaknesses, it was this conference that adopted the first Party Constitution and elected the nucleus of an all-India leadership where all the erstwhile communist circles were represented. This leadership or CEC (minus Satyabhakta who resigned in February 1926 and Bagerhatta who became aware of other comrades’ suspicions about him and resigned in mid-1927) met irregularly from tune to time till the Meerut arrests (March 1929) and played a commendable role on the working class front and in organising the Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties during this period. If the subjective intentions of AO Hume did not determine the nature of the Congress, this was all the more true in the case of Satyabhakta and the CPI. Satyabhakta’s nationalist attitude was defeated, and the CPI started its journey as a part of the international communist movement. It was, therefore, quite natural that the foundation of the party should be counted form the Kanpur conference, as indeed was decided by the Central Secretariat of the CPI on 19 August, 1959. There was no debate about this, at least in public.

After the CPI-CPI(M) split, however, a peculiar position was taken by Muzaffar Ahmad who sided with the CPI(M). In his Myself and the CPI published in 1969, he describes the Kanpur conference as a “tamasha” and declares the Tashkent formation as “the real date of the foundation of the CPI”. His main logic is that the CPI formed in Tashkent was affiliated to the Comintern and the CPI established in Kanpur was not. Muzaffar thus makes international recognition the sole criterion in determining when and whether a communist party comes into existence, and disregards all other factors like organic links with the mass movements in the country concerned. And on this point also his argument is far from perfect, for as we have seen before, the CPI at Tashkent was indeed registered with the Comintern (with its Turkestan Bureau to be more precise), but the Comintern was not so stupid as to recognise the motley group as a full-fledged party.

However, the question remains as to why did the CPI formed in Kanpur not appeal for affiliation with the Comintern? Muzaffar Ahmad, who was elected to the CEC in the Kanpur conference, explains this before the CPI-CPI(M) split in this way: “... as the party members did not consider the membership sufficient so they did not apply for the party being affiliated to the CI. All the same, the CI considered the CPI as a part of itself.” Ahmad thus, did not consider non-affiliation as a great crime at that time, as he did after the split. In fact just like his other comrades he took the Kanpur decisions in all seriousness and made a fervent appeal to all “Communists in Bengal” to “come together and build the party” in a statement published in Langal on 21 January,1926.

Without wasting time in explaining Ahmad’s self-contradiction, let us record here our own views on the relevant questions. First, the absence of formal recognition did not prevent the CPI, either during the 1920s or later, from making reports to and seeking advice from the Comintern, which on its part guided and issued directives to the CPI just as it did in relation to other affiliated parties. For all practical purposes, therefore, the CPI acted very much as a part of the international communist movement led by the Comintern. Perhaps there was a subtle tendency, even after the desertion of Satyabhakta, of avoiding an organic relationship with the Comintern, but that falls within the purview of inner-party debates and cannot render the party itself illegitimate.

Second, we regard the entire historical period between the Bolshevik revolution and the second world war as the formative years of the CPI, in the sense that a more or less full-fledged communist party actually developed only in the second half of 1930s after overcoming a prolonged setback by means of rectification of certain political mistakes and reorganisation of the leadership. It is in this total historical context that we take 26 December 1925, when representatives of all the active communist circles of the country met together and adopted the resolutions founding the all-India party, as the foundation of the CPI. If the October Revolution ushered in a brand new stage in national liberation struggles worldwide, for India this general advance was concretely realised — for the first time and therefore in an embryonic form — through this conference. Ideologically this meant a revolutionary leap from petty bourgeois revolutionism to Marxism-Leninism and once this was achieved, the political transition from individual terrorism to mass struggle could not be far behind.