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Mainstream, Vol. XLVII, No 45, October 24, 2009

Quest for Socialism

Sunday 25 October 2009, by Surendra Mohan

(The Congress Socialist Party was formed on October 21-22, 1934 in Bombay. The following article, by the leading Socialist ideologue in the country, is being published on the occasion of the CSP’s 75th anniversary.)

The Congress Socialist Party was formed by those Congress workers who wanted to link the anti-imperialist struggle with socialism. They felt that it would, on the one hand, motivate the working classes to join the struggle and provide it the necessary striking power, and, on the other, create favourable conditions for the establishment of socialism in free India. As early as in 1928, Acharya Narendra Dev had written to Jawaharlal Nehru that the Indian National Congress should clarify the social and economic objectives of the independence struggle. Socialist groups had been formed in Bihar, Punjab, Varanasi and Mumbai in 1930, and there was a strong desire for an all-India party. One of the Socialist leaders, Jayaprakash Narayan, who had become a convinced Marxist, had, while returning home from the USA where he had gone for his education, called on Harry Politt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, to discuss the role of Marxists in the Indian freedom struggle. He felt disappointed when told that the Communists in India could not join hands with the Indian National Congress because of the latter’s bourgeois leadership. He believed, on the other hand, that Gandhi had made the independence movement a mass movement and vastly broadened its appeal. He therefore plunged into it and, in 1932, became Acting General Secretary of the AICC, as all other office-bearers were in jail and he functioned from the underground to keep the activities going. This gave him a certain prestige among the younger Congress workers. Yusuf Meherally and Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay were the leaders of the Youth League which led the boycott of the Simon Commission in Mumbai.

Since these Congress workers gave primacy to the independence struggle, they decided that every member of the new Party will have to be a primary member of the Congress party. However, members of the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in Punjab, those of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association of Chandra Shekhar Azad in UP and Bihar, and the Anushilan Samiti in Bengal became members of the Party. They included Kulbir Singh and Kultar Singh, brothers of the great martyr Bhagat Singh, Damodar Swaroop Seth, Yogendra Sukla and Shibnath Banerji. In certain cases, Leftwing patriotism, rather than Marxism, had brought them to the Party. Nevertheless, the Party described tself as Marxist-Leninist, though some prominent leaders like Lohia and Asoka Mehta were not in agreement with this line of thinking. JP and Acharya Narendra Dev were Marxists and they accepted the request of the Communist Party of India to be a part of the CSP as it was a banned organisation, while the Comintern had changed its policy to forge popular fronts with all democrats in order to meet the rising challenge of the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy. The Communists were required to join the Congress party which they did by becoming a part of the CSP. This relationship was a turbulent relationship as the CSP was found by them to be boring from within. The CPI had the advantage of easily available literature eulogising the achievements of the Soviet Union and describing the role of the socialists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe in disparaging terms. They would call anyone who repudiated these accusations as a renegade.

Certain developments in the Soviet Union such as the adoption of the new Constitution drafted by Joseph Stalin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which allowed only the Communist Party and none other to function in the USSR; the Moscow trials in which close associates of Lenin were the accused; and the pact which the Soviet Union made with Nazi Germany before the war sharpened the differences between the CSP and CPI leaders. The bitterness of the factional quarrels in the Party led to long term estrangement between the Socialists and Communists which turned into enmity as the CPI started to describe the war as the people’s war, rather than the imperialist war, after the attack by Germany on the Soviet Union. The CSP was in the vanguard of the ‘Quit India’ struggle while the CPI was supporting the war efforts of the British Government. In retrospect, it appears necessary to state that if the CPI had functioned as an independent entity without the strings attached to the Comintern as the Communist Party of China had done, a lasting unity of the Socialists and Communists would have come about.

There were other differences too which cropped up in due course. The Socialists shared the democratic ethos of the Congress and tolerance of even fundamental differences. The Communists had no use for such ethos. Gandhi and democrats of all hues were insistent that democratic functioning required a close relationship between the means and ends. This was contrary to Leninist practice, and both were dismissed by the Communists as bourgeois.

The Socialists, however, were no admirers of Gandhi and his methods including his constructive programme and the spinning wheel. In his pamphlet Why Socialism? JP strongly criticised them. The Socialists also sharply opposed the tendency in the Congress to return to constitutionalism. Hence, when the Congress decided to form provincial governments after the general election in 1937, they refused to join them. Narendra Dev had been elected as the leader of the Congress Legislature Party and was thereby assumed to occupy the office of the Chief Minister; but he refused to do so despite Gandhi’s personal appeal. The CSP functioned as a watchdog over the working of the Congress governments, and in Bihar and UP in particular, it led to several internal clashes on points of policy, with the Socialists launching popular kisan agitations against such policies.

THE CSP leaders found that the trade union movement was disunited as three different trade union centres, the All India Trade Union Congress led by N.M. Joshi, the Indian Federation of Labour led by Jamnadas Mehta and the Communists’ Red Trade Union Congress, were in existence. JP was able to bring them into one organisation, and in this effort he received valuable support from Ajoy Ghosh, who later became the CPI General Secretary. The two parties and other Left nationalists helped to found the All India Kisan Sabha, the All India Students Federation, the Progressive Writers Association and the All India States’ People’s Conference, but the role of Jawaharlal Nehru was also important. In fact, during Nehru’s Presidentship of the AICC, Lohia, Mohommad Ashraf and Z.A. Ahmed functioned in the secretariat of the AICC together. Nehru had nominated some prominent Socialists in the Congress Working Committee as well. Lohia was able to broaden the focus of the Congress party in respect of other colonised countries and formulate the policy of keeping away from the imperialist powers and the fascist ones. That sowed the seeds of non-alignment in later years.

The CSP was keen that trade unions and kisan sabhas get affiliated to the Congress and get representation in its organisational structure. Its members therefore introduced an amendment in the constitution of the Congress at the Faizpur session in 1936 to that effect, but the same was not acceptable to the Patel group. But they went ahead in organising the struggles of kisans and industrial workers, while carrying on the activities of the Congress party. Some of them, like Acharya Narendra Dev and Ganga Sharan Sinha, were office-bearers at the provincial and district levels of the Congress. At one time, the two groups and their close allies controlled one-third of the votes in the AICC. When the quarrel between Subhas Chandra Bose, who was the Congress President, and the Patel group became acute and the latter was in no way agreeable to the re-election of Bose, the latter put forward the name of Acharya Narendra Dev as a consensus candidate, but the other group did not accept it. In the ensuing contest, Bose won by a thumping majority, forcing the Patel led Congressmen for a manoeuvre in Gandhi’s name, since Gandhi had expressed opposition to Bose’s victory. During the Tripuri session of the AICC, there was a showdown between the two sides on the resolution moved by Govind Ballabh Pant that the elected President Bose should constitute his Working Committee in consultation with Gandhi. This was a testing moment for the CSP leaders. They were faced with the choice of joining Bose and the Communists in splitting the Congress and providing an alternate Leftist leadership to the struggle. The CSP desisted from the split and therefore observed neutrality in the voting. It thereby angered a large number of cadres, particularly in West Bengal. The Communists then proposed the creation of a Left Co-ordination Committee, but, in the end, they too left Bose and returned to the Congress.

The CSP had argued that Gandhi’s leadership of the freedom struggle was indispensable as two big civil disobedience mass struggles had been waged under his stewardship and the next struggle was not far away. A disunited freedom movement, it pointed out, would cause irreparable damage to the anti-imperialist struggle.

Socialists took prominent lead in the anti-war campaign and most of their leaders and cadres courted arrest. JP, who was interned in the Deoli camp jail along with several Socialist and Communist leaders, led an indefinite fast to protest against the deplorable conditions in the jail. Unfortunately, his Communist co-prisoners gave up the fast in between, owing to a change in the tactics of the party. From this jail, JP tried to smuggle some letters to his colleagues with the help of his wife Prabhavati who refused to cooperate because of Gandhian principles. The letters, therefore, were picked up by the police, and the government publicised them to defame the Congress party. But when the ‘Quit India’ struggle was launched, the tactics advocated by JP in those letters came handy to its participants. The participation of the industrial workers and kisans in large numbers in this struggle vindicated the CSP’s understanding that the espousal by the Congress of their concerns and adoption of pro-socialist objectives would enable the working classes to join the freedom movement. Yusuf Meherally, the then Mayor of Mumbai, toured the country to meet Party workers and discuss with them the next phase of the struggle. The Party’s ideological and organisational preparation for the struggle was far in advance of other Congressmen, and hence it acquitted itself admirably in it.

JP provided “My Picture of Socialism” in 1946, in order to clarify the Party’s thnking on socio-economic issues. This was the time when he, Lohia, Achyut Patwardhan and Aruna Asaf Ali were lionised a lot by the youth. JP was elected President of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation, Post and Telegraph Employees Federation and Defence Employees Federation. Nehru, the Congress President, offered Lohia that he be the General Secretary of the Congress, but he set certain conditions which stipulated that the Congress organisation would be free from the government’s control. This was not acceptable to Nehru. At that time, the CSP leaders were bending all their energies against any compromise between the Congress and the government. But, the leadership of the Congress had grown tired of struggles and frequent jail-going and was keen on securing power. The wave of communal riots also might have forced its hands. Gandhi alone sought to quell the communal fires in Noakhali and Tipperah or Patna, Calcutta and Delhi, and Lohia endeared himself further to him by his unstinted support in these efforts.

Although the Socialists had started as Marxists and were critical of Gandhi’s methods and his philosophy, gradually they drew close to him. One reason was his principled stand on anti-imperialism, and another his clear enunciation against feudal and landlord relationships on agriculture. While they differed on his theory of trusteeship, Gandhi offered to Socialist economist M.L. Dantwala that he should write down his condition to govern the employer-employee relationship and the social responsibilities of the proprietors. Dantwala’s formulation that all property, including factories, was social property and the society had the right to dispossess a grossly erring proprietor got Gandhi’s concurrence. Gandhi insisted on them that they must adhere to truth and non-violence, on which the reply was for acceptance of truth but not non-violence till the British had left. In the last phase of his life, the Mahatma had drawn close to them, having been kept in the dark by Nehru and Patel about their agreement with Lord Mountbatten so much so that he looked towards them as the alternate leadership of the Congress. But, by then, things had moved far ahead.

The CSP‘s grave miscalculation was that another struggle against imperialism would have to be launched because they would not go away without partitioning the country which the Congress would not countenance. Therefore, they rejected whatever compromises were being worked out between the government and the Congress. They did not join the Constituent Assembly for the same reason, also because it had been constituted on a limited franchise and the representatives from the princely states were nominated undemocratically. Thus, they were not present in the Provisional Parliament as well. The chasm between them and the official leadership had grown much by 1947 so that the prefix Congress was dropped from the name of the Party in its Kanpur session. Ultimately, in March 1948, a decision was taken in the Nasik Conference to quit the parent organisation. But, before that, the Congress Working Committee had decided that no organised group could remain in the Party. In quitting the Congress, the Socialists also decided that all those who had been elected to any elective office including the Provincial Assemblies or Zilla Parishads, would resign their offices. Thereby, they set a healthy precedent.

The CSP leaders also set certain ethical standards in their personal lives, which were generally followed by the followers. These were austere living, refusal to fall prey to the love of office and sacrifice for the cause. They remained close to the working people though most of them had come from the middle classes. Their lasting contribution to Indian politics was the radicalisation of the freedom struggle and laying the foundations of a democratic socialist movement.

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