Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2019 > When was CPI founded? Some historical questions

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 1 New Delhi December 21, 2019 | ANNUAL NUMBER

When was CPI founded? Some historical questions

Saturday 21 December 2019, by Anil Rajimwale

There is some confusion and controversy around the question as to when the Communist Party of India (CPI) was founded. There are basically two versions: according to one, it was founded in 1920, and to another in 1925. There are a few other versions too, such as its having been founded in 1933 etc., but they are not as important. We will try to clarify the issue citing historical decisions of the united CPI itself and other sources.

 We will establish that the CPI was founded in 1925, and not in 1920 or on any other date. Besides, a misconception is circulating that it was M.N. Roy, who was the founder, or initiated the founding, of the CPI. An impression is wrongly being created that he was the ideo-logical-political inspiration behind the foundation of the CPI. This view/version has found its way even into some official textbooks in the colleges and universities. We will contradict this view also.

Ideas of socialism and communism in India

First of all, some background. This background contributes in a major way to creating conditions for the formation of the CPI in the country. It will show that the party was formed as part and parcel of evolution of the freedom movement, the workers’ and peasants’ move-ment and under the impact of the ideas of the Russian Revolution of November 7, 1917.

The ideas of socialism, communism and Marxism had emerged and been spreading much before a Communist Party came into being in India. They were among the streams that led ultimately to creating conditions for the emergence of the communist movement in the country and the establishment of the CPI. We will not go into too many details here except to build up a background. Swami Vivekananda was among the first to mention that he was a socialist and that one day the society of equality and workers’ (‘shudras’) rule will definitely be established all over the planet. He was deeply influenced by the working class movements in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century, Europe was gripped by the workers’ movements led by the Second International. There were all kinds of socialist trends including Fabian, scientific and others. It was under these influences that Vivekananda was able to state that ‘I am a socialist’.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and M. Singaravelu were thinking in terms of establishing a workers’ or labour party in India on the lines of the workers’ parties of Europe. Tilak tried to found one in 1916. M. Singaravelu is known as the ‘first Communist of South India’. He already was a member of the AICC (All India Congress Committee). He, in fact, established a Labour Kisan Party (Workers’ and Peasants’ Party or the WPP) in Madras, which was announced on the occasion of the celebration of the first May Day in India in 1923. It was this WPP, led mainly by Singaravelu, but also by Velayuthan, Sri Krishna Swamy and Sankarlal, which organised the first May Day in India in 1923 along with the trade unions at two places on the Madras beach. That was one of the very first instances when the Red Flag was hoisted in India.

A Manifesto of the WPP or the Labour Kisan Party was distributed on the occasion. A WPP unit was established in Punjab later in May 1923. There followed the formation of other units of the WPP.

In July 1923, the Madras-based Central Committee of the WPP sent a telegram to its units and affiliated organisations in Punjab, Bombay and Bengal to organise ‘Flag Day’ on July 18, 1923, and to hoist both the Tricolour and the Red Flag on the occasion. This was to demand the release of Gandhiji. The day was widely celebrated all over the country. (See, Singaravelu: The First Communist in South India, PPH, 1975)

Along with activities elsewhere in the country, these events in the South created strong grounds for the formation of the CPI in 1925.

Formation of AITUC, 1920

In the meantime the trade union movement in India was growing rapidly all over the country. It would be an interesting field of study to trace the development of the TU movement in all its multi-faceted character. Industrial and workers’ centres were emerging by the first and second decades of the 20th century, such as in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Kanpur, Karachi, and else-where. Textile, mines, port and dock workers, iron and steel, railways and such other industries and workers were important among them. Here it will not be out of place to mention that Mahatma Gandhi was a prominent TU leader in the second decade of last century, when he organised and led the workers of Ahmedabad on 37-day-long strike for their minimum wages in 1918. It was after this struggle that the concept of the minimum wage became current in the working class movement.

 The foundation of the AITUC in 1920 was a major political event, which contributed to creating conditions for the formation of the CPI later on. It brought the communist movement to qualitatively new levels. It was a highly politicised workers’ movement. The speech of Lala Lajpat Rai, while inaugurating the AITUC’s foundation conference, is the proof of it. He dealt with three main points: class struggle, the struggle leading to socialism, and the Soviet Union as an example of socialist building. And Lajpat Rai was not a Communist; he belonged to the radical sections of the Indian National Congress. This is all the more significant.

 In the meantime, the activities of the communist groups were moving towards the formation of the CPI.

Formation of communist groups

The AITUC and its politicisation contributed immensely to the formation of workers’ and communist groups in the major industrial centres of India. Marxist newspapers began to be published in various centres, such as The Socialist by S.A. Dange, Langal by Muzaffar Ahmed, Kirti by Sohan Singh Josh, Labour Kisan Gazette by M. Singaravelu, and others. They organised the workers in economic and political battles. They also did considerable political-ideological work.

S.A. Dange in particular emerged as the first Communist/Marxist theoretician and guide of the communist and working class movement. He may be termed as the real working class leader, and not just a TU leader. He wrote the first Marxist booklet, in India, Gandhi vs Lenin (1921),comparing and contrasting the politico-ideological views of Lenin and Gandhi. The booklet and other writings went considerable distance in political-ideological education of the rising initial generations of the Communists. His journal, The Socialist, in the early 1920s did a huge amount of Marxist ideological work among the rising intelligentsia, students, teachers and others. It brought out Marxist interpretation and analyses of issues in theoretical and practical fields, trade union and working class movements, communist move-ment, history, philosophy, Indian tradition, and so on. It educated the first generations of Marxists.

 The appeal of communism and socialism among the educated sections began to grow, especially after the Russian Revolution. The Revolution had a deep impact on the revolutionaries and freedom fighters inside India and abroad. Under the impact, the revolutionaries raised dreams of liberation and socialism. Among the major outcomes was the attempt to form the CPI in India as well as abroad. The leaders and workers of various groups, the Marxist elements among the educated sections, their growing participation in the freedom struggles, etc. created conditions for the spread of Marxism and communism and for the ultimate foundation of the CPI.

The point we are stressing here is that objective and material conditions for the rise of the communist movement were mainly formed inside the country. The events in Europe and other countries were important no doubt, but they constituted secondary features of the process. The communist groups worked hard among the workers, students and other sections, creating communist consciousness and groups to propagate the ideas of scientific socialism.

The Communists and Socialists had been part and parcel of the freedom and national liberation movement from the very beginning. It was in 1921 that Maulana Hasrat Mohani, already a Communist, raised the question of full independence within the AICC in its Ahmedabad Congress. It was rejected at the time. A group of Communists came into being within the Indian National Congress, working inside and outside and creating elements and groups of revolutionaries and Communists. By 1925, there was a considerable number of Communists as members of the AICC as well as in some of the provincial Congress Committees such as in Bombay, Madras, Punjab, etc. M. Singaravelu attended the Gaya session of the Indian National Congress (1922). He also worked actively within the Madras PCC (Provincial or Presidency Congress Committee).

 Condolence meetings at the death of Lenin in 1924 were organised all over the country by the WPP and other organisations. We are not going into the details of the many other activities during the build-up to the foundation conference of 1925.

Role of M.N. Roy

M.N. Roy was an important revolutionary who rose to become the member of the ECCI or the Executive Committee of the Communist Inter-national. He made an important contribution to the revolutionary and communist movement, including in India. But it is wrong to attribute the role of founder of the CPI to him. Unfortunately, even some textbooks propagate this mistaken idea.

He emigrated from India in 1915 as an underground revolutionary, going to Indonesia to collect arms. He ultimately went to the US and became a Communist. He was to found the Socialist Party of Mexico in 1918, which a year later became the Communist Party, and subsequently as its representative he came to Moscow to attend the Second Comintern Congress in 1920, never to go back thereafter.

M.N. Roy was asked by Lenin to prepare a thesis on the colonial question at the 2nd Congress of Comintern (1920). There were sharp debates between the revolutionaries of the East (the colonial countries) about the attitude to be adopted to the ongoing national liberation and freedom movements in Turkey, Iran, India, China, Indochina etc. Unfortunately Roy produced a document which was thoroughly sectarian and damaging to the revolutionary movement in the colonial countries. Therefore it was totally rejected by Lenin and the Comintern majority. This came to be known as the ‘Supplementary Theses on the Colonial Question’. Dr G. Adhikari in his Documents of the History of Communist Party of India, Volume One (1917-22), has given a detailed version of it, including the facsimile of the original typed copy of the Roy’s Supplementary Theses, in which Lenin made the cuts himself.

 Lenin presented the ‘Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’. He emphasised the need for “a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to the bourgeois democratic liberation trends in the backward countries”. (See the above-mentioned volume by Dr Adhikari, p. 196.) He underlined that the Communists must support every national and bourgeois democratic movement against imperialism. “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it...” (Ibid.)

The task of the Communist elements in the oppressed countries must be to create ‘revolutionary parties’ and not just Communist parties in name only. Lenin was firmly against any haste in the formation of CPs without the maturity of the objective situation. The formation of classes was not sufficiently developed. He conveyed this to several Indian revolutionaries also. Lenin told the Communists of the East: “You will have to base yourselves on the bourgeois nationalism which is awakening...”(Ibid., p. 197; Lenin CW 30, p.162) Lenin also formulated for the

first time

the concept of anti-imperialist united front.

These formulations and concepts were opposed by M.N. Roy, Sultan-Zade (Persia), Serrati (Italy), and some others. There were heated debates, but Lenin stood his ground. Roy and some others, including the above-mentioned, were of the opinion that aligning with the bourgeois-democratic movement would only harm the proletarian movement. Therefore, the proletariat must first overthrow this leader-ship, including that of Gandhiji in India, and then take over the leadership to carry on the national freedom movement.

This view was rejected.

Tashkent Meeting, 1920

According to the researches into original documents by (late) Dr G. Adhikari, and many other documents, the initiative to form the CPI in Tashkent in 1920 did not come from the Comintern or its representative M.N. Roy. Roy himself had denied that he took any initiative. It came from a group of ‘Muhajirs’ and some other revolutionaries residing in the Soviet Union and other countries like Germany. Some members of the Indian Revolutionary Association like M.P.B.T. Acharya and Abdul Rab were also involved. Details of names and minutes have been published on several occasions, and as such we will avoid them here.

In any case, there is much confusion in history about the Tashkent event. There even existed two or more groups, each claiming to be the “CPI”. There were several trends among the revolutionaries abroad before and during the 1920s. Some of them tried to form a ‘CPI’, and such groups did some useful work of propaganda. One attempt led to the formation of the Tashkent-based ‘CPI’. But this ‘party’ could never function as an effective organisation with clear-cut aims. While M.N. Roy did not agree with the convening of the meeting in Tashkent in 1920, he nevertheless attended it. He later tried to force the Communists in India to form a party in a hasty manner. This the revolutionaries and the Communists in India did not agree with. The Tashkent Group had practically no live contacts with the emerging Communist movement in India at the time, except through correspondence.

Of course, the Tashkent group made useful contribution by way of propaganda of the freedom movement and socialism, but they really could not function as a ‘Communist Party’.

 M.N. Roy in fact did not take the initiative to convene the Tashkent meeting, nor did he agree to the formation of the ‘Communist Party of India’ there. He had his own reasons for this approach. Roy writes in his Memoirs: “There was no sense in a few emigrant individuals calling themselves the Communist Party... knowing fully well that it would be a nominal thing, although it could function as the nucleus of a real Communist Party to be organised eventually... I had not spoken to them (Muhajirs) at all of Communism.”

 M.N. Roy further says: “I did not claim to represent anybody but myself.” “I did not approve of the formation of the emigrant Communist Party, and did not believe that it had any right to speak on behalf of the workers of India, not to mention the Indian people as a whole.”

It clarifies the widespread misconception that M.N. Roy founded the Communist Party of India and that he was an ideological inspiration for the Indian Communists. It is true that Roy was in contact through his periodicals with the Indian Communists, but the latter did not get on well with him and did not agree with his approach. The attitude of Adhikari, Dange, Ghate, and even others like Muzaffar Ahmed etc. make this amply clear. Muzaffar Ahmed has sharply criticised M.N. Roy in his works including in Myself and the Communist Party of India. Communists in India carried on their own ideological and political work.

 The ‘Tashkent Party’ died down after some time. Hardly a few meetings were held subsequently, with no serious activities abroad. It had practically no contact with the Communist in India, and no coordination or joint work. The Communists in India functioned in various centres, and worked as a party since 1925. The Communists in India never recognised the ‘party’ formed in Tashkent in 1920 even after the foundation of the CPI in 1925.

 The ‘CPI’ formed in Tashkent disappeared in the course of time for lack of perspective and ideology, simply vanished. It cannot be their treated in any way as the founding organisation of the CPI.

 In the light of the above-mentioned facts, it is surprising that the central organ of the CPI-M, People’s Democracy, should treat 1920 as the foundation date of the CPI in its recent issue of October 7, 2019. The CPI-M is celebrating 100 years of the ‘foundation of the CPI’, but this does not square up with historical facts. Besides, the People’s Democracy also gives too much importance to the role of M.N. Roy and blows him out of all proportions. As we have seen, Roy himself clearly stated that he did not agree with the purpose of the Tashkent meeting and did not treat it as the CPI’s foundation meeting.

Foundation of CPI in Kanpur, 1925

The CPI formed in Kanpur in 1925 was a natural culmination of the freedom movement, as also of the working class struggles, combined with the impact of the ideas of the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution deeply radicalised the worker, peasant and freedom struggles in India. The mass struggles were led and study circles were formed by the emerging intelligentsia drawn towards Marxism and Communism. The Kanpur Conference was held near the Congress pandal, symbolising the close cooperation with the freedom movement. The formation of the CPI also was the culmination of the coming together of working-class groups and other groups, who had been doing a lot of ideological and political work since a few years. The Kanpur Conference finalised the formation of the Central Executive Committee and election of its office-bearers, adoption of a Constitution, membership form and red flag. It evolved in the course of time, to take on the form it subsequently adopted.

 This process never broke up, and continued through evolution of the organisation as well as through ideological-political struggle in the national liberation movement. The organisation skillfully combined national and class tasks in a dialectical unity.

Clarification of the Foundation Date of CPI

In the united CPI, the question of date of foundation was discussed on several occasions. One occasion was the query from the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1959 as to the date of foundation of the CPI. At that time several dates were in circulation, particularly 1920 and 1925. To put an end to the confusion, the Central Secretariat in its meeting held on 18 August 1959, decided that 1925 should finally be accepted. The meeting was attended by Ajoy Ghosh, B.T. Ranadive, P.C. Joshi, M. Basava-punniah, Z.A. Ahmed, S.A. Dange, Bhupesh Gupta, A.K. Gopalan and others. The minutes written in the handwriting of Basavapunniah sstated: “Date of the foundation of the CPI: 1925.” No other date was put forward by any of those present.

 A letter was sent to the Editor of Review of Indonesia on August 20, 1959. It was written and signed on behalf of the CPI secretariat by B.T. Ranadive. The letter stated: “The Communist Party of India was founded in the month of December in the year 1925. Even before that, there were individual Communists and Communist groups working in different parts in the country. But it was in December 1925 at a meeting of representatives of various groups in the country held at Kanpur that the Communist Party of India was formed.”

In 1960, the Bengal State Council of the CPI wanted to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the CPI in 1961, taking the foundation date as 1920. The Acting General Secretary of the CPI, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, wrote to the West Bengal State Council of the party on June 10, 1960: “We understand that your State Council has adopted a resolution to the effect that in 1961 we should celebrate the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the Party.

“The Secretariat discussed the matter and has come to the conclusion that this is a question which cannot be decided by any other organ of the Party except the National Council. It will therefore be appropriate to take up the issue in the next meeting of the National Council.”

On June 5, 1963, the Secretariat of the CPI issued a statement on ‘Foundation Day of Communist Party of India’, saying:

“We wish to inform all concerned that the Communist Party of India was founded in December 1925 at a conference of Communists held in Kanpur. Even prior to this, there were some seven Communist groups who functioned in several parts of the country and received guidance from the Communist International. But the party known as the Communist Party of India came to be formed at the above-mentioned conference held in Kanpur in December 1925, which was attended by more than 500 delegates. Prominent among those who attended were: Muzaffar Ahmed from Calcutta; S.V. Ghate, R.S. Nimbkar and J.P. Bagerhatta from Bombay; Abdul Majeed from Lahore, and C.K. Iyenger and Singaravelu Chettiar from Madras.

“When the conference met in December 1925, both comrades SA Dange and Shaukat Usmani were in jail.

“The party executive met on December 28 and elected Comrade S.V. Ghate as one of the General Secretaries.” (New Age, 9 June 1963)

The party gave proper respect to the Tashkent Group and treated it more as a ‘Foreign Buro’.

So, the point here is that the leadership of the united CPI itself had finally clinched the issue of the date of foundation of the CPI. It had unequivocally decided that the year was 1925 and not 1920. The party’s Central Secretariat, which decided it, included some of the towering leaders who later joined the CPI-M, as is clear from the names mentioned above.

S.V. Ghate also has written in detail about 1925 as the foundation date of the CPI. (New Age, August 30, 1970, and elsewhere in his memoirs etc.)

These facts put the answers to the question in the proper perspective, and establish once again that the CPI was founded in 1925, and not in 1920.

The author is a Marxist ideologue.

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted