Jyoti Basu and the unnecessary success of Indian Communism

Posted on November 15, 2010


By Koenraad Elst

Jyoti Basu’s demise is not the end of an era. The heyday of Communism in India is over, that turn has already been taken some years ago, with the electoral defeat of the Communist Parties of 2009 a major step downwards. Neither is the end near, for in India Communism is far more alive and combative than in almost any other country, with a formidable presence on the ground (Northeast, Jharkhand-Telengana corridor), in the trade-unions, in academe and in the parliaments of several states. Communism’s persistent grip on West Bengal in particular is very largely Jyoti Basu’s own work.

While the CPI supported the Emergency and took a leadership role in its enforcement, Jyoti Basu’s CPM opposed it, and he rode the wave of anti-Emergency resistance to power in 1977. After he led the state for 23 years, his successor Buddhadev Bhattacharya is still capitalizing on the party’s power position that Mr. Basu built. His personal character shines rather brightly compared with the venality of hollowness of so many Congress, casteist and even BJP politicians. Like his Kerala counterpart, the late E.M.S. Namboodiripad, he showed that Marxism-Leninism requires from its votaries a lifestyle of discipline and dedication. The Communists, both inside and outside his own party, have reason to deplore the passing of a hero of their movement.

But what should the rest of us remember him for? He was born in a “bourgeois” family in Kolkata and had the privilege of studying in England. There he joined the freedom struggle and, through this involvement, came closer to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Only because the party instructed him to, he postponed full membership until after his return to India. In 1946 he was elected for the first time to the Bengal parliament, where the Communists supported the plans for the imminent Partition. Many leading Communists (and other leftists, like Amartya Sen) were from East Bengal and found to their dismay that like all other Hindus, they had to flee the new state of Pakistan to India, the country whose unity they had betrayed. Unperturbed, they continued the anti-Hindu line they had shared with the Muslim league during the struggle for Partition. Once in power, the Communists patronized the immigration and integatrion of millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. At the end of his term, Mr. Basu even toyed with the idea of rebaptizing “West Bengal” as just “Bengal”, to do away with the implication that next to “West” Bengal, “there is another part tucked away somewhere”. That was a pretty crass instance of the Communists’ tendency to rewrite history at their own convenience, for of course there does exist another part, the East Bengal that the Communists themselves helped to give away to the Jihadi forces.

We should take this opportunity to highlight one important phenomenon, which was concentrated mostly in pre-Independence Bengal, viz. the shift of a large majority of revolutionaries — particularly from the Anushilan Samiti circuit — fro Nationalism to the Communist movement. An auxiliary reason for this development was British aid: revolutionary prisoners were given Marxist literature, because the British knew that the Communists opposed terrorist violence and aimed for a mass uprising in the long term, thus leaving British (and other oppressors’) lives out of harm’s way until the time of the Revolution, which moreover might never materialize. Hindu nationalists who easily resort to cheap blame-the-British scenarios (“Jinnah was brainwashed by the British into trading in nationalism for separatism”), tend to overplay the importance of this; the British could only reinforce a tendency already in operation. After the success of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917-20, it was but natural that activists of a revolutiony temperament worldwide would feel attracted to Marxism. At least, they did so wherever an alternative was lacking. In Italy, many joined the Fascist movement and grabbed power in 1923 on a very similar wave of revolutionary enthusiasm.

Did India have an alternative? The freedom movement was captured by M.K. Gandhi in 1920 and left no room for revolutionaries, whom Gandhi emphatically disowned and condemned. The fledgling RSS, founded by an Anushilan Samitidisappointee, Dr. K.B. Hedgewar, renounced politics and preferred work in the sphere of culture, social self-organization and “character building”. Hedgewar rejected offers to integrate his volunteer corps with the Hindu Mahasabha in political work for national independence and for the safeguarding of Hindu interests. So, it is likely that many revolutionaires, initially motivated only by love of India and freedom, turned to Marxism not because of this ideology’s intrinsic strengths, but for lack of a native ideological alternative. Revolution-minded people obviously could not reconcile with Gandhian nonsense, anymore than the moderate constitutionalists (including the young Jinnah) could. They wanted to act decisively against the British colonialists, and also against backward social forces hampering the devolution of the fruits of freedom to the masses. Naturally they had no patience with muddle-headed Gandhism and associated anachronisms.

One alternative that might be cited is represented by the lone figure of Swami Shraddhananda. He stood for national freedom as well for an uncompromising stand against inequality and social injustice. But the party he co-founded, the Hindu Mahasabha, was soon embroiled in compromise with Hindus who supported the freedom struggle but practised the politics of the dead weight against social reform. Also, it did not involve itself in revolutionary struggle, not in terrorism of course, but not even in theoretical exercises planning for a revolutionary overthrow of colonialism in the long term.

Lenin, while renouncing “childhood diseases of Communism” such as stray terror, did teach a long-term strategy for taking power and imposing an unalloyed new order. Nobody in India seemed to understand the challenge and the need for a convincing native alternative. Sri Aurobindo lamented that the mind of the Hindus had become dysfunctional, but he too failed to formulate an alternative, let alone to work for it. After his personal experience with the failure of the armed struggle, he soon retired from politics and, while giving lucid comments on political evolutions, never came out again to provide practical leadership. All this while, Gandhi worked on people’s emotions, but the Marxists worked on their minds, and their penetration was more enduring.

Thus we see a long list of freedom fighters taking up Marxism and Socialism of various varieties. Not all these men and women were Marxists in the true sense, they only wanted to serve the national cause but not in the Gandhian way. Thus, the problem was a lack of native Indian/Hindu vision and an ensuing line of action.

We should not paint each and every Communist as a villain, but highlight the fact that a true native ideological narrative needs to be developed from scratch and articulated. This would address a historical lacuna in India. Indian Marxism will die a natural death only when such a vision emerges.