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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 50, New Delhi, November 27, 2021

Looking back at commonalities between the Indian anti-colonial struggle and the Chinese Revolution | Archishman Raju

Saturday 27 November 2021

by Archishman Raju

This year is the centenary of the Communist Party of China and is also the end of the centenary of the non-cooperation movement in India. Hence, today, a 100 years after these struggles began in their modern form, it is opportune to examine the commonalities between the Indian anti-colonial struggle and the Chinese Revolution. This examination happens in an atmosphere when the system of global free-market capitalism is in a deep political and economic crisis. Inequality levels are higher than ever before. We are facing high levels of unemployment and discontent around the world with the policies of globalization or neoliberal capitalism. Currently we are faced with the possibility of hyper-inflation in the U.S. and in the world. This time is also one of an intense ideological attack on all revolutionary ideas.

The task is made hard because of the ideological atmosphere in which we are operating. On one side is the continued anti-communism propagated by the western ruling elite. On the other hand are the several ideological attacks that have developed on all struggles for freedom in general, and the Indian freedom struggle in particular basing themselves ideologically on ultra-leftism, post-modernism, identity politics and reactionary cultural nationalism. This has led to an atmosphere where it is hard to objectively examine these past struggles, and learn from them in our time. And yet these past struggles represent the gold standard of what struggle looks like, and a generation of youth which has turned pessimistic needs to study them to find moral, political and even spiritual direction for our time. This is what makes it even more important to look back at these struggles, to defend them and to understand them.

On the surface, these two struggles look very distinct. The Chinese struggle involved a bitter civil war whereas India saw a non-violent mass struggle. Mao was famous for saying “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” whereas Gandhi would say “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind.”. The distinctions between the two struggles are obvious on the surface and have been spoken about several times.

But as Lenin said, “History as a whole, and the history of revolutions in particular, is always richer in content, more varied, more multiform, more lively and ingenious than is imagined by even the best parties, the most class-conscious vanguards of the most advanced classes. This can readily be understood, because even the finest of vanguards express the class-consciousness, will, passion and imagination of tens of thousands, whereas at moments of great upsurge and the exertion of all human capacities, revolutions are made by the class-consciousness, will, passion and imagination of tens of millions, spurred on by a most acute struggle of classes.“.

I think seen in their depth and in essence, there are several parallels and commonalities between the Indian and Chinese struggles which become clear once one sees them not as isolated historical occurrences but in the context of a world revolution. The world system of imperialism had inevitably linked all colonized and semi-colonized countries together, broken down their society and natural evolution, and created extremely oppressive conditions for the masses of people in these nations. Foreign-made machine goods severely decimated the livelihoods of Indian and Chinese artisans. Foreign powers led to the de-industralization of Indian and Chinese society, creating vast famines which led to the deaths of several millions of people. Hence, it is no coincidence that the Taiping revolution (which is what the Chinese Communist leaders called it) and the 1857 first war of Independence took place within a space of 10 years. Both movements were brutally crushed by foreign powers.

In their own way, the Indian freedom fighters and the Chinese revolutionaries learnt from this past experience. The Chinese revolutionaries closely studied the Taiping revolution. They studied how the Taiping leader Shi Dakai’s military retreat was cut off at the Dadu river and made sure to not repeat his mistakes. The Indian struggle in turn was propelled by the suppression of the 1857 struggle and the failure of constitutional methods to adopt a radically different approach of non-violent direct action.

I think after the French and Russian Revolutions, the Chinese Revolution and Indian Freedom Struggle deserve foremost importance in world history for they both conducted historical struggles against world imperialism and in the process deepened our understanding of what constitutes revolution. They have importance not only for the countries of which they were a part but they have world-historic importance.

What language should we use to describe these struggles? In the 1930s both Mao and Nehru were referring to the aims of the Chinese and the Indian struggle respectively as bourgeois-democratic. However, it became clear that these struggles had nothing in common with the western bourgeoisie of the 20th century but instead had become part of the world socialist movement for democracy and were fundamentally anti-imperialist in nature. Sometimes they were called “a new type of bourgeois-democratic movement”. It is better to use Lenin’s language of “national revolutionary” struggles for they were both indeed revolutions. I would also suggest that their theoretical understanding and conceptualization needs the language and work of the great theorist, W.E.B Du Bois who came up with the concept of “the darker nations” and the “color line”.

Mao and Gandhi

It is impossible to talk about the Indian and Chinese struggles without speaking of their two leaders, Mao and Gandhi. The relationship between the leader and the struggle is always a multi-faceted and dialectical one. I think Mao and Gandhi were both not just great revolutionaries but also great theorists who both discovered the revolutionary essence of how struggle could be conducted in the Chinese and Indian context in their time. To call Mao a revolutionary is not controversial, but using that word for Gandhi may not sit well with some people. However, it must be used because he was the undisputed leader of our freedom struggle chosen by the masses of Indian people, and because he understood the masses and was able to move them to a higher stage of struggle.

Gandhi was the older of the two, born in Porbandar. He was of the generation of Sun-Yat Sen, the great democratic leader of the Chinese people. After his education in London, when Gandhi came to South Africa in 1893, he was a young barrister looking to make his career in law. When he returned back to India in 1915, he traveled in the lowest class of the ship. To understand this transformation one has to study his connection with the Indian population in South Africa. South Africa was full of indentured Indian labor, brought there as a way to drive down African wages, and prevent any unity of labor. It should be remembered that after the British abolished slavery in 1833, they often relied on Asian indentured labor across the Atlantic for work in plantations. Millions of Indian and Chinese were taken as indentured labor to Africa, Caribbean and Latin America. This indentured labor was used by the British throughout the world in conditions hardly better than slavery. It was this labor that deeply inspired Gandhi. As Gandhi said of South Africa,“In the van of the satyagraha battle were Indians born here and among them particularly the poor and the simple people rendered great services. The rich were busy getting richer”.

Around the time Gandhi was leading his Satyagraha in South Africa. Mao was about 14 years old and working on his family’s farm. Mao was born to a relatively well-off peasant family in Hunan. India and China were both deeply affected by Japan’s victory against Russia in their war in 1905. In India, Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote about Japan’s victory and how it had been a blow to European arrogance about Asian inferiority. Similarly, China saw the coming to the fore of reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao who Mao said he would read obsessively. So the early 20th century saw the parallel intellectual ferment in Asia as ideas of independence, reform, modernization and anti-imperialism arose. Hence in the 1910s, Mao was convinced of the need to modernize and educate the Chinese people who he saw as backward. By this time Gandhi had returned to India and had fashioned his weapon of Satyagraha but had not yet directly opposed the British empire.

The first world war and the Russian revolution were world-historic events which accelerated the development of events in India and China. By 1918 Mao had formed the New People’s Study School and was exposed to the ideas of the Russian Revolution. In 1919, the May 4th Movement happened in China, a movement of primarily students demonstrating against imperialism and the unfair treaties imposed on China after the conclusion of the War. In India, as we know, at this time Gandhi tied the non-cooperation movement with the Khilafat movement and started openly opposing the British Empire. The intellectual ideas that had developed in 1905 were finding ferment in the new world conditions. At this point, Mao writing the editorial for the journal Xiang River Review wrote of the need to fight oppression, to unite the masses though he considered boycotts and strikes as the main weapon to be used in the struggle and spoke of violence to be a tool of oppression.

In Champaran and the Kheda Satyagraha of 1917-1918, Gandhi had already made his turn to the masses of people and to the peasantry in particular. As he said, “in meeting with the peasants I was face to face with God, Ahimsa, and truth”. Gandhi soon became the undisputed leader of the Indian freedom struggle. For Mao, the turn to the peasantry came in his study of the peasants’ struggles of Hunan in 1927 which he detailed in his “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”. It was this scientific examination of the peasantry that made Mao take a definitive turn towards the peasantry as the vanguard. He made a detailed examination of the peasant rebellions and peasant committees in four different provinces in Hunan and defended their activities against the oppressive landlords. Both Mao and Gandhi turned away from the intellectual movements before them and based themselves firmly in the peasantry, in the seemingly most backward section of society. In his defense of this great mass of poor peasants and their struggle, Mao turned the ideological direction of the Communist movement. Mao and Gandhi both based themselves completely among the Indian poor. As Subhash Chandra Bose said of Gandhi, “Wherever he may go, even the poorest of the poor feels that he is a product of the Indian soil---bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh”. The same could be said of Mao who in all essence came from the Chinese peasantry.

Mao’s report on the peasantry was written a month before Chang Kai Shek began the Shanghai Massacre in which Chang Kai Shek, going against the wishes of Sun Yat Sen who had wanted the nationalists and communists to unite, initiated a violent campaign against the communists. This changed the course of the Chinese revolution. Combined with the warlordism that was present in Chinese society at that time, it turned it into an extremely violent civil-war and anti-imperialist war that continued essentially for more than 20 years. This betrayal and war-lordism had no parallel in Indian history.

A big part of that war was the Long March which was initiated as a strategic retreat of the Red Army from their base in Jiangxi. The Long March is unique and without parallel. With bare minimum equipment, through difficult terrain the Red Army covered close to 8000 miles on foot. They did this all the while being pursued by a much better armed and stocked army of Chang Kai-shek. Through the Long March, the Red Army showed incredible courage covering an average of 25 miles a day. To take one example, the Red Army commander Liu Poch’eng had to go through the Lolo tribal territory. To negotiate passage through the territory, Liu drank the blood of a newly killed chicken along with the high chieftain of the Lolos to seal the political alliance between the Red Army and the Lolos. When crossing the Dadu River, the Red Army asked for volunteers who would cross the bridge and walk in the face of enemy machine guns to certain death just to make passage for their comrades behind them. In the process, they forged some of the hardest revolutionaries and most courageous people the world has known and also initiated a campaign of political education across all provinces that they covered. The Long March is the time in which Mao solidified his leadership of the Communist Party of China.

In a different way, Gandhi’s campaign of non-violent resistance was equally unique. It developed the practical application in social struggle of the concepts of truth and non-violence for our times . The concept of non-violence led to intense debate among revolutionaries. I think it is often misunderstood as a tactic or a strategy, but it was in fact much deeper than this, it was a philosophy. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., non-violence was an expression of the fact that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny.

Non-violence is often confused with non-resistance or with meekness. To the contrary, Gandhi imagined it as immense fearlessness, freedom from all external fear. Hence, along with ahimsa he spoke of Abhaya. He said that he preferred violence to cowardice. Gandhi thought of the non-violent struggle as a war of its own type, a war for truth and freedom. Thus our non-violent campaign also saw developed people of extreme fearlessness where people were willing to walk in the face of bullets and bayonets. As the American journalist Webb Miller who had covered World War 1 said of the Salt Satyagraha, when he saw the satyagrahis being beaten and not responding with fear or violence, “In eighteen years of reporting in twenty-two countries, during which I have witnessed innumerable civil disturbances, riots, and rebellions, I have never witnessed such harrowing scenes”.

What created such disciplined and courageous people? I think it was the expression of indomitable will which came because of the level of political education of the people. There were many aspects of the thought of Mao and Gandhi that united them. Both did not just take their ideas to the people, but they believed that ordinary and poor people were capable of knowledge. Mao had been insulted and ignored by intellectuals when he was an assistant librarian at a young age. As he said in 1942 of these rootless intellectuals, “They ought to be aware of the truth that actually many so-called intellectuals are, relatively speaking, most ignorant and the workers and peasants sometimes know more than they do.” Gandhi similarly said that the “concentrated essence of wisdom” was to be found in the poorest of the poor and not among those intellectuals in the cities in India who looked up to the British. Both asked for fearlessness, sacrifice and humility from their followers and for intellectuals that were dedicated to the service of the struggle.

Through Gandhi’s constructive program, he worked out the need for service to the masses. Similarly Mao would say “Be Concerned with the Well Being of the Masses” and speak of how the Communist Party must seek to be the vanguard of the masses as a whole. Both Mao and Gandhi emphasized the importance of practice. Both did not consider abstract ideas and theory to have any relevance unless they could be worked out in practice. This point about practice is very important because a lot of people have criticisms of our freedom struggle or of Mao’s revolution. For example, a lot of people say that the Congress during the freedom struggle didn’t go far enough or that Mao during his struggle went too far. These criticisms must be judged by the effectiveness of the ideological positions of the critics in practice. Were these positions in practice able to unite the masses of people against imperialism? It is not enough to point to a few isolated rebellions as evidence of radicalism, we must discriminate between revolution and rebellion. A revolution must be capable of taking an entire society to a higher stage of development. This was Gandhi and Mao’s great achievement, to achieve unity among the people and by declaring a free India and a people’s republic of China, to take their people to a different stage of history.


In the final analysis, Mao was a genius who worked out the Chinese essence of revolution and in the process enhanced revolutionary theory and practice. Similarly, Gandhi worked out the essence on the lines of which the struggle in India was to be conducted and in the process offered the world a whole new philosophy of social change. In remembering these two figures, we seek to remember the values they exemplified and seek their relevance for our times. In studying their lives, we should hope to teach the young generation what they stood for, and why their selfless contributions to struggle are to be remembered. In emphasizing the life and ideas of the two, one is not simply emphasizing them as individuals but as a leadership that captured the dreams, aspirations and movement of two countries in their struggle against imperialism. In pointing out the parallels between the two struggles, and how they were a part of world revolution, one is seeking to learn from the best of revolutionary traditions. Finally, while the distinctions between the two struggles may have appeared sharp at one point, one should remember that the trajectories of our two nations are deeply connected and it is only in friendship and understanding that we can progress and fulfill the ideals of our struggles today.

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