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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 47, November 7, 2009

Reflections on October Revolution and Crisis in Communist Movement Today

Saturday 7 November 2009, by Mohit Sen


Renowned Marxist ideologue and veteran Communist leader Mohit Sen passed away in early 2003. On the occasion of the eightyninth anniversary of the October Revolution on November 7, 2006 we carried excerpts from the chapter ‘Reflections’ from his memoirs A Traveller and the Road—The Journey of an Indian Communist (published by Rupa and Co., New Delhi) to bring out his views on the October Revolution and its aftermath in the light of the latest developments on the global scene and our own country punctuated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the communist movement’s serious crisis and setback. We are reproducing those excerpts once again on the occasion of ninetysecond anniversary of the October


Though the birth of the communist movement took place in 1847-48 when Marx read out the Communist Manifesto, it would not be unfair to date its birth from the victory of the Russian Revolution on November 7, 1917. The news of its victory was sent ‘To All! To All! To All!’ Since then, despite defeats, it swept across the world as no other movement in the twentieth century. Its victory in Russia and its former colonies, the defeat of Nazism, the triumph in China, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Vietnam as well as its strong presence in Italy, France, South Africa, Brazil as well as in our country are facts that cannot be erased from history, that is, the memory of mankind. It was not only a question of geographical expansion. Some of the greatest masters of culture in science, literature, cinema, dance, theatre and the arts in the twentieth century became Communists or friends of communism.

In our country many among the great masters of culture were drawn towards communism and even more the Soviet Union. Satyajit Ray was among them. He told me that Soviet cinema had inspired him and also “the inspiration behind that inspiration”.

How did this happen? Before examining the reasons for this, it needs to be stated that communism’s triumph was essentially that of Lenin and Leninism. He was a superb tactician undoubtedly but not only that. Lenin was an unsurpassed Marxist theoretician enriching all the three components of Marx’s legacy—dialectical and historical materialism, political economy and scientific socialism. Yet, if one were to pick out his greatest and most original contribution to Marxism and revolutionary thought and practice in general, it would be his concept of the vanguard party. He first set out this concept in What Is To Be Done? It is not democratic centralism nor discipline that are essential to this concept. What is essential is the relation between spontaneity and consciousness and between the intelligentsia and the working class. The Party is conceived as the indispensable link between the science of socialism and the movement and struggle of the working class that creates socialist consciousness. Such consciousness has to be brought to the working class from outside the sphere of the life and struggle of that class but it has to be brought to that class and brought by the intelligentsia that has grasped the science of socialism.

Few adequately understood Lenin’s theory of the Party. Among the exceptions was Antonio Gramsci whose Modern Prince embodies this concept in all its complexity. Such a party existed only as long as Lenin lived and is born and reborn only when it begins its journey in country after country. The Italian Communist Party led by Togliatti and Berlinguer was an exception. In a different way, for a shorter period along with errors, so was the CPI in the 1934-47 period when P.C. Joshi was its General Secretary, that is, in the earliest years of my adherence to the Communist Party...

It is significant that while Lenin and Leninism triumphed when they were most themselves, the triumphs associated with Stalin occurred when those actually leading such parties disobeyed him and returned to Lenin, to put it figuratively. This applies to the defeat of fascism, the victory of the Chinese, Yugoslav, Vietnamese and the spectacular advance of the Communist Parties in some countries, especially Italy and France.

The building of the power of the Soviet Union and extensive social welfare was an astonishing feat accomplished as he desired. The price in terms of lives, destruction of much of the Russian heritage accompanied by Russification of the non-Russian nations, miscalculations, leading to waste and distortions in the economy on an extensive scale, was far too heavy and much of it unnecessary. The loss caused by the dissociation of communism from democracy and freedom can never be counted. In the end, socialism was not constructed in the Soviet Union….


I would now like to return to the theme of the spectacular success of the communist movement till the middle of the seventh decade of the twentieth century.

In the first place, there was the objective contradiction embedded in capitalism, that is, between the continually increasing socialisation of the process of production and the individual appropriation of the surplus resulting from this process. The appropriation of the surplus could be and was subject to increasing social control after the Great Crash of 1922-1931 and the form of its appropriation by individuals could be and was altered. Yet, to this day, that contradiction remains and capitalism as the final system based on the private ownership of the main social means of production cannot rid itself of it.

The communist movement presented progra-mmatically and in the practice of its protest and assault an alternative to capitalism. It possessed formidable strength in its combination of Marx and Lenin—one more a thinker and the other more a practitioner but each being both. In addition to being an alternative, it successfully presented itself as an advance on capitalism. It was not a retreat, not a return to any supposed golden age of the past. Moreover, communism was both in terms of theory as well as practice a carry forward of the already existing modes of thought and action.

The twentieth century was for communism its century. In this century, the central contradiction mentioned above expressed itself not so much through the capitalist-worker conflict as through the contradiction between feudalism and the peasantry and that between national liberation and imperialism. This was graphically expressed in the change of the central slogan from ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ to ‘Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!’

The success of the communist movement, it should not be overlooked, was the greatest in countries with no democratic traditions and institutions. Communists succeeded most where they confronted power more than hegemony, where competition from other parties also opposed to the oppressor’s system was weak and where the revolution took the form of a war of movement culminating in a lightening final destruction of the enemy’s citadel. Gramsci’s strategy had elements of Leninism but was essentially an alternative to it. This strategy, it is not enough realised, depended on its success, on the building of a united front not of classes directly but in the mediated form of already existing parties. It required for its success a comprehensive hegemony and not just in the political sphere. It required cultural hegemony understood in the broadest sense. It required a party capable of hegemony. Such a party had to be a collective individual and the ‘Modern Prince’—a concept that Gramsci developed brilliantly on the basis of Machiavelli’s classic text….

Stalin’s memorable oration at Lenin’s funeral was literally soul-stirring. It was, unfortunately, highly sectarian—‘we Communists are men of a special mould, we are made of a special stuff’. There were, of course, no lack of statements by Stalin, Mao and other Communist leaders insisting on the Party maintaining the closest links with the masses, serving them and learning from them. Yet, the theory and the functioning of Communist Parties did push them from bring vanguard parties to becoming elitist parties substituting for the masses. They tended to become something like religious orders—the Society of Jesus comes immediately to mind. It feels good to be a member of such a party so long as you do not disagree with the Party line and are either a member of the leadership or liked by the leaders. The pinch comes and somewhat more than just a pinch when you disagree, are pushed into dissidence and eventually to being thrown out. It was Trotsky who said that you can never be right against the Party and ended up as an exile. The titles of Deutscher’s great triology on Trotsky sum it all up—the prophet armed, the prophet disarmed, the prophet in exile. It required immense stamina and courage to have worked on in conditions of increasing isolation and irrelevance.


Apart from Lenin’s greatest contribution to history—his theory and practice of the Party—turning into a handicap to the making of history there were gaps in communist theory that led to the setback and crisis in which it finds itself today.

The failure to understand democracy is one such gap. Revolutionary and liberal democracy had their limitations but they raised humanity and its history to a new level. The Communists grasped only the limitations of civil libertarian democracy. They pointed out quite correctly that at a certain moment in history democracy served the interests of the bourgeosie. It did not always promote equality nor fraternity and did not come in the way of exploitation and oppression. In many ways, it served to disguise the predatory character of the bourgeoisie. It also created illusions that by participating in the liberal democratic system, the emancipation of the exploited and oppressed could be achieved. Such participation was also to be confined to the electoral sphere and of increasing the economic well-being of the working people. It was to be evolution without the punctuation of breaks from an existing equilibrium. The communist movement ignored the leap in history accomplished by the emergence and advance of democracy and the fact that it was both a value in itself and cherished by the oppressed as a necessity in the struggle for their empowerment. The disregard and even destruction of civil libertarian democracy became a part of its outlook and practice.

Another such gap was the failure to appreciate, much less to promote, the scientific-technological revolution that stormed ahead in the twentieth century, transforming all components of society and that brushed aside all that came in its way. The Soviet Union made spectacular scientific-technological advance but Stalinist dogmatism and anti-democratism not only limited that advance but at times opposed and struggled against it. The crassest example was, of course, in the sphere of genetics. In the development of the technology of warfare, it lagged behind especially as far as computers were concerned but partially made up for it by enormous extra expenditure that eventually crippled its economy and led to its destruction. Essentially, the Communists did not believe that the scientific-technological revolution could precede the victory of socialism on a global scale.

Another gap was with regard to what constituted the working class and what its role was in the progress of history of socialism. The dominant understanding was to restrict the concept of the working class as being applicable to the industrial workers directly engaged in material production. It was assumed that these workers would, by the very fact of their objective location, not only come over to the socialist ideology and the Communist Party but lead it. This just did not happen anywhere except for a few exhilarating initial years of the Russian Revolution. The sweeping advance of the communist movement could by no means be attributed to the working class that practically nowhere became a class for itself, far from becoming the universal class envisaged by Marx….


Still another gap was the failure on the part of the Communists to correctly evaluate nationalism. Lenin understood the strength and the positive nature of nationalism. This was most clearly expressed in his polemics with Rosa Luxemburg and later M.N. Roy. He was also quite aware of the menace of nationalism degenerating into chauvinism. Still, in theory, the nature of nationalism as an arena of class struggle and not necessarily the expression of the interests and the ideology of the bourgeoisie was not appreciated. In practice, either internationalism was counterpoised to nationalism or it was allowed to flourish as chauvinism.

In India, as elsewhere, the Communists were patriots and champions of the working people of the country. But they were not nationalists. They did not know India. In my own case, I became a Communist and worked as a Communist for decades before I accepted India. I was not an exception. Mao Zedong was wrong in wanting to Sinicise Marxism and to bring into being Chinese communism. The correct effort would have been to be Communist and Chinese. Ho Chi Minh achieved this. So did Joshi and Dange. But they were exceptions. Of course nationalism could turn ugly and did. But so could communism itself and it did.

The correct understanding of nationalism—its imperative, dangers and potentialities—was needed by the communist movement not only in the colonial and post-colonial countries but also in the imperialist countries. It was no accident that in the anti-fascist struggle the Communists were defeated, among other reasons, because the Nazis and other fascists took over the national traditions and sentiments of the people. Dimitrov was severely critical of the national nihilism of many Communist Parties.

The Communist approach to religion has also contributed to its failures and setbacks.

Religion as an ideology and as an institution could not be dismissed as tended to be done by the Communists as only an opiate of the masses. Historically, it played a progressive role in the emergence of civilisation in different parts of the world and acted as a unifier and inspiration of the tribal peoples. It embodied lofty ideals, high moral principles and the complexity of life. It still does so. At the same time, it inevitably tended towards inflexible dogmatism, was an impediment in the way of scientific enquiry and was the handmaiden of the exploiters and oppressors of the people. It was the ideological form of murderous conflicts though also of the popular desire for unification and liberation. Some of the great liberators of the people were deeply religious. Gandhi was one of such leaders, though not the only one.

Most important of all for those like the Communists who were seeking to lead the masses, was the deep attachment of vast numbers of the latter to religion. These included many of those who were supporters and even some who were members of Communist Parties. It should not be forgotten that if the Communist Parties tended to be vehement opponents of organised religion, the latter more than repaid the compliment. The historic compromise proposed and attempted by the Italian Communists vis-à-vis the Catholic Church was needed by both and it was the latter which, in the end, refused to go ahead with the experiment.

What the Communists, generally speaking, lacked was an appreciation of religion as one of the forms of man’s appreciation of his limits and the yearning to transcend these, to overcome mortality through time—only through time is time conquered. Joseph Needham’s attempt to integrate the sense of the holy with the communist movement flickered out.


In India, the communist movement advanced but did not triumph, it passed through serious setbacks but was not defeated. Even now in its different formations the communist movement in India is, I dare say, more recognisably and significantly Communist than almost anywhere else in the world. This was an expression of the madhyam marg that has characterised those who helped India to make its history. The Communists of India could have done more for themselves and their country had they understood that they could not have accomplished much on their own. They should have been more a ‘part of the main’. The Congress did not take over the space that rightly should have belonged to the Communists. In fact, it was the space also of the Communists who did not accept this reality. It was, and remains, a pity. For too long we imitated the Russians, and the Chinese because, after all, we had not succeeded and they had. This was an important reason for our failure. I have lived this combination of struggle, advance, failure and continuation for half-a-century and tried to set it out in the preceding chapters and therefore will not reiterate. We should not imitate others, nor just try to be different. We should, at least now, look more closely at where we are and do what our conscience and understanding dictate. We have to change, but we do not need to give up our history and our identity.

A final world about our deficiencies. This applies to the communist movement worldwide and not only to India. Indeed, this is a problem, for all scientists. It is the overwhelming of method of theory. What the method enabled us to reach and build into a systematised form tends to become an obstacle to the further use of the method. Theory becomes unquestioned and unquestionable dogma. Received wisdom becomes a barrier to going beyond to newer realms of knowledge.

Human fallibility is all too often due more to prejudice and jealousy than to lack of understanding. Extraneous considerations come in the way of doing what you know you should. Brecht has written, as mentioned earlier, ‘Unhappy the nation that needs heroes’. I would add, ‘tragic the movement that cannot have the heroes it needs’!…

….We perhaps attempted too much but that is what the times demanded and proclaimed. We would have made more mistakes and achieved less had we not attempted to do the impossible. Out of such folly is loveliness born and the world remade even if by others. We pass on our message of historical impudence. My only regret is not that we were not wiser but that morally we were not better. We had too much of personal ambition and realised too little that to be good one had to know the pains of others—the true Vaishnavite ‘peer pariye jaane re’. It was not difficult to understand but extremely difficult to give priority to….

…Communists we have been of different kinds. There will be other kinds in the future but Communists there will be. More open than we were, less arrogant and going along with many others who will not be Communists but whose aims, though differently expressed, will not be all that different from and not antagonistic to what Marx wished for humanity. He predicted fulfilment without insisting that a particular party was needed for it. History would do it in its own way. It is enough that we were given the chance to be a part of its greatest forward movement.

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