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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 29, July 4, 2009

Marxism in India: Need for Total Rectification

Tuesday 7 July 2009, by Bipan Chandra


The following article was published in Seminar in June 1974. In view of its relevance at this juncture it is being reproduced with due acknowledgement and the permission of the author, the distinguished historian and Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Marxism has been an active political and intellectual force in India for over 50 years now. One need not therefore apologise for an attempt to evaluate critically the record of the activities of the Indian Marxists.

I would like to make two points in the very beginning. Firstly, because of the very basic character of Marxism as the philosophy of revolutionary social action, the activities of the Marxists as thinkers and as organisers of political action cannot be separated. This is even more true in India where Marxism and the communist movement have from the beginning had an inseparable existence. Secondly, the record of the Indian Marxists has not been only a negative one. They have many an achievement to their credit which should not be ignored. One need not therefore be carried away by the ‘twisted’ dictum: nothing fails like failure.

(1) Against heavy odds and facing the full repression of the colonial State and the ideological opposition of both the traditionalists and the modern bourgeois political leadership and intellectuals,1 the Indian Marxists succeeded in popularising basic Marxist ideas, in laying the foundations of organised peasant and trade union movements, in establishing the idea that social revolution cannot be made without a revolutionary party, and in creating a viable Communist Party, however weak.

(2) The Marxists have been the only consistent propagators of rationalist and humanist ideas in India. Here, they have tried to make up for the absence of a genuine and widespread and committed liberal bourgeois movement of rational and humanistic thought. In addition, they have fought for genuine secular ideals, rise above the unscientific and syrupy Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai outlook.

(3) They have contributed most to the wide propagation of that internationalist outlook which has been to an extent characteristic of Indian politics since the 1930s. Even the errors in the application of the notion of People’s War from 1942 to 1945 and the resulting heroic facing up to the widespread popular nationalist hostility had this aspect: it revealed the Marxist commitment to internationalism. Increasing weakening of this commitment since the 1950s has of course to be noted.

(4) In the intellectual and cultural realms, the Marxists have given a basic turn to several social sciences. In history, they have succeeded in focusing attention on the role of the social classes, on the mode of production as the basic characteristic of a social system, on the social analysis of religious and philosophical ideas, on the nature of the colonial economy and colonial system, on the class character of all nationalist and other popular movements. In economics, the Marxists have had to face the full force of the most advanced bourgeois ideological formation, which has, moreover, its own attractive Left-wing variations. Yet, in spite of their thin ranks, they have succeeded in riveting attention on agrarian relations, the role of foreign capital, and the basic characteristics of Indian industrial and commercial capital. Stray Marxist scholars have also made contributions in political science, sociology, and philosophy, which are in general dominated by bourgeois outlook. Ever since 1937, when the Progressive Writers’ Association was founded, the Marxists have been a major force in literature and in literary criticism in almost all the Indian languages. Their contribution in the fields of drama and cinema is also significant.

Having noted all this, it has to be said that their record of failure is rather long, for at no stage during the last 50 years have the Indian Marxists succeeded in achieving more than a small part of what was historically possible. But before this aspect of taken up, I must make a personal explanation. My interest in raking it all up is neither denigration of the large numbers of the finest men of the last three generations of the Indian Marxists, nor that of the vicarious pleasure of a jesting pilate or an armchair academic who likes to mock others from the so-called Olympian heights. My interest is that of a Marxist who has been fully involved for the last 25 years and who has, in some way or the other, participated in, and shared with joy or with sorrow, the small successes and the much larger failures of the Marxists, and to whom much of the criticism could be personally applied. If I no longer prefer to remain silent, if I do not mince words, if I even sometimes use harsh words, it is because there has been little genuine and severe heart searching among the Indian Marxists, who have after all much to criticise in their past and present, and because I believe that Indian Marxism cannot go forward today unless a process of total rectification is initiated.

The extent of the failure of the Indian Marxists is brought out by one simple political fact. For years, their entire thought and activity have been guided by the prospects of a revolution to be made when a deep and all-pervading economic crisis would occur and lead to a similar political crisis. Often, in their rightful anxiety to look for the ripening of the ‘objective conditions’ for revolution, the Marxists have clutched at straws and mistaken a recession for a deepening political crisis. But now that both economic and political crisis are here, the Marxists are not even in a position to make a bid for power. They stand paralysed now that the bird of revolution stares them in the face. They suddenly find themselves facing two choices: they can either, ignoring the semi-fascist threat, cheer, usually from the sidelines, the spontaneous or Right-wing led petty bourgeois populist movements, or rely on the Congress, the main party of the bourgeoisie, to save the day for democracy, even if it does so by becoming more and more authoritarian.

The failure lies, of course, not in the political impotence and the immobilisme of today but in the manner in which Marxism has been applied in India for the last 50 years. It is one of the ironies of history that the leaders who find themselves helpless before history today are the very people who have been applying Marxism in India from its virtual inception! And in this respect, one may make another important point particularly for the benefit of the young Marxists: the failure has never been that of lack of courage or the spirit of sacrifice or devotion or hard work. The personal record of the long line of the founders of Marxist thought and movement in India is ummatched, almost heroic, in this respect. Whatever personal degeneration one sees among a few today is the consequence of the failure to apply Marxism correctly and not its cause.


The basic failure of the Indian Marxists lies in their inability to emerge as the standard-bearers of an alternative political leadership, however small. For the pre-1947 period, the criticism is not that they failed to become the leaders of the national liberation movement (many objective factors would also contribute to such a contingency) but that they failed to organise an independent anti-imperialist struggle which would have a necessarily changing relationship with the bourgeois- and the petty bourgeois-led nationalist struggle.2 Instead, they either became carping critics of Gandhiji or Nehru, or took on the mantle of the most militant fighters in the ranks of the bourgeois-led movement. They either cut themselves off from the nationalist stream or became its ‘tail’. Similarly, after 1947, they have tended either to become ‘tails’ of the Congress or the petty bourgeois radical Opposition or to indulge in heroic but sectarian adventurism or to indulge in empty talk. In the intellectual realm, there is the failure to project Marxism as an alternative world view. India is one of the few countries where no strong anti-Marxist movement exists because the Marxists did not make Marxism a major intellectual current. The number of Marxist books, pamphlets and journals or of Marxist intellectuals is pitifully small. This is apart from the extremely poor quality of the Marxism of many Marxists.

In fact there has been a certain regression in this respect during the last decade or two. While earlier the poor might not vote for the Communists or join their demonstrations, they tended to see them as the hope of the poor, the submerged, the exploited—they were seen as the coming alternative. Moreover, they were seen in every field as men of a special stamp, of a higher morality. Today they are seen by most as another Opposition party, as just another group competing for popular favour and for leadership over trade unions, student unions, teachers’ associations, etc. I was shocked to hear from an agricultural labourer in Punjab the other day that the capitalists (sarmayadars—a category in which he included rural landowners, that is, the rich and middle peasants) had three parties in his area—the Congress, the Akalis, and the Comrades!


In this essay I would like to highlight a few of the basic weaknesses of the Indian Marxists which go beyond weaknesses in the understanding of the Indian situation, or of programmes and their implementation. These relate to the style of application of Marxism in India.

Firstly, there is the failure to make the masses aware of their social condition, to make them politically conscious, to make them aware of their own class identity and objective social role, politically to fully activise them, to make them aware of their own capacity to act politically and of their own active role in making their future, to make them their own leaders. This is the most elementary basic task of a Marxist. On this basis alone does he enable the masses to organise themselves for political action. This is one of the distinguishing marks of Marxist political work from other radical movements under bourgeois or petty bourgeois leadership.

This was the historic task that Gandhiji performed for Indians as members of a nation: he gave the Indian people confidence in their capacity to fight and defeat imperialism. True, he did not go further and teach them to become their own leaders and organisers. Their political activity was kept under strict control from the top. The leaders of a bourgeois national movement could possibly not do otherwise without transcending one of the basic limits of a bourgeois national or popular movement. But the fact is that the Indian Marxists have also failed to perform this task for their own classes and for their own politics.

Today, the urban worker, the agricultural labourer, the poor peasant is discontented, is angry, but does not believe that he can be the main actor, the redressor of his own grievances, that the solution of his social condition lies in his own hands. He still looks to others whether the Congress, or the Jana Sangh, or the Akalis, or any of the three or four Communist Parties, but others—to find the solution. Even when he is pro-communist, he sees the Communist leaders and workers as the saviours who will do things for him.

The problem here is not merely that of taking politics to the people. Politics, even of the Marxist variety, are beginning to reach them. In two Punjab villages I recently visited, all the three Communist Parties have done some political work and are widely known. But what politics have they taken to the village poor? Not the politics of self-reliance, but of what the comrades will do for the poor.3

Equally, there has been the failure, with some admirable exceptions, to work politically among exploited classes, especially in the rural areas. This is the very raison d’etre of Marxism. True, social change cannot be brought about by the working and exploited classes without allies, but the allies would remain allies and not become masters only if the Marxist political work is based on urban workers, agricultural labourers, and the poor peasants.

Yet, the Indian Marxists have repeatedly failed to act upon this elementary precept. They have spent a great deal of their energy in debating such questions as (before 1947) whether the Indian bourgeoisie has gone over to imperialism or not, the role of violence in the anti-imperialist struggle, which class should exercise hegemony over the struggle or in the new society, the relative roles of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary work, whether the main struggle in India is against feudalism, or semi-feudalism, or the capitalist landlord, or the kulak, whether the Indian bourgeoisie is national or comprador, whether it is increasingly collaborating with imperialism or building independent capitalism, whether the strategic goal of Indian revolution is national liberation, national democracy, people’s democracy, or socialism.

And, undoubtedly, these controversies are quite meaningful and have to be settled one way or the other. But unless the Marxists are rooted in their own class, no amount of correct understanding of the objective situation would be of much use. Lenin could succeed not because in April 1917 the majority of the Russian people were with him; not even the majority of peasants supported the Bolsheviks. But the Bolsheviks were rooted in their own class and so could make useful alliances with other classes and parties.

This basic weakness of Indian Marxism was recently brought out dramatically by the events in Gujarat and Bihar. These movements of the petty bourgeoisie against price rise and corruption in administration were hailed by the Marxists without bemoaning the massive fact that the working class of Ahmedabad and Gujarat and Bihar was throughout inactive, as were the rural poor. Even more interestingly, when the Marxists tried to intervene, they did so through a parallel student movement of the Left (a united movement of the AISF and SFI in Bihar) and not by organising the intervention of the working classes. Yet, any Marxist should be able to see that a political crisis during which the working classes of the cities and villages are politically passive can only lead to fascism, or militarism, or authoritarianism of the more traditional bourgeois parliamentary type.4

This failure to get rooted in one’s own basic classes is in part the result of two other sins: the reliance on spontaneity and the desire to keep together one’s existing voting base. Any radical party which does not do sustained political work among the people and does not arouse their political consciousness is compelled to rely on spontaneity. One form of spontaneity is the over-reliance on economism. A second is the dependence on people’s existing political consciousness which is, even in the case of working people, a bourgeois or petty bourgeois consciousness.

Even worse, spontaneity or ‘instant’ radicalism compels the Marxists to rely for support on those social groups who have already been brought into active politics by the nationalist movement before 1947 and by the spread of education, the modern mass media, and parliamentary politics after 1947. Inevitably, these groups are the petty bourgeoisie (the educated white collar employees in private and public sectors, students, teachers, petty shopkeepers, etc.) in the towns and middle and rich peasants in the villages (the rural petty bourgeoisie). It is easy to take radical politics to them since they are already in politics and are under conditions of underdeveloped capitalism ‘ready-made’ radicals for they are aware of the possibilities of the modern world, fully conscious of their ‘deprivations’ and, consequently, acutely and increasingly frustrated.

On the other hand to politicalise the agricultural labourers and poor peasants, neglected by Gandhiji and Nehru and made passive believers in their fate, is a very strenuous and time-consuming job. The task is made tougher by the fact that any effort to arouse the agricultural labourer would arouse the full fury of the rich peasant who has been hitherto not averse to supporting radical causes and movements, especially if he was their chief beneficiary. This is one reason why the Marxists find it difficult to give up the notion of struggle against feudalism and semi-feudalism in the countryside, and against ‘reactionaries’, ‘authorities’, ‘elites’ and the establishment in the cities, for to do so and shift to concrete class struggles of the proletarian and semi-proletarians would mean giving up their entrenched political base in the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie. And, so, almost everywhere, except partly in Kerala and Bengal, the rural proletariat votes for the Congress.

Secondly, the Marxists acquired voting strength among the rural petty bourgeoisie over the last 30-40 years by espousing its demands for lower rents, land revenue and water rates, land to the tiller, etc. Work among agricultural labourers and semi-proletarian poor peasants may initially weaken their political support among the middle and rich peasants. This may initially reduce their votes and seats in the legislatures and other forms of visible political strength, for example, mass demonstrations in State capitals, etc. And so the efforts to find an answer in theory and practice that will enable them to keep their existing mass base both in cities and villages while trying to spread downwards.

This reliance on the petty bourgeoisie for radical politics and neglect of the proletarian and semi-proletarian masses also partially explains another interesting phenomenon of Indian Marxism—the failure to produce cadre, leaders, and intellectuals from these social classes during the long period of 40 to 50 years. This failure is, of course, also linked to other aspects some of which will be discussed later in this essay.


The Indian Marxists, most of whom came to Marxism from the petty bourgeoisie attracted by Marxist ideas, have grossly neglected theory and ideology as factors in Marxist politics. This is surprising for their own experience should have convinced them that individuals from the bourgeois or petty bourgeois origin cannot be won over to Marxism and Marxian politics except on the basis of ideological struggle and transformation. Radical politics and trade unionism can bring a student, a white-collar employee, a teacher, or a professional into the folds of the Marxist movement, but these cannot sustain him there for long. Even when he is quite radical or even a member of a Marxist party, his class outlook, his ideology quite often remain bourgeois or petty bourgeois. To sustain him in his new politics it is necessary that he undergoes ideological remoulding in which Marxist theory would play a crucial role. Otherwise, the ‘movement’ goes on because there is enough in life to make people come near it and into it, but the turnover of the personnel is shockingly large.

The point is that unless a petty bourgeois is consciously, ideologically transformed, he remains a petty bourgeois, however radical and ‘anti-authority’ or even ‘anti-system’ he might become in day-to-day life and politics. This radicalism can even be put at the service of the capitalist parties. One should not forget in this respect that fascism is distinguished from bourgeois authoritarianism precisely because of its reliance on petty bourgeois radicalism. Fascism is not merely Right-wing, it is ‘Right-wing radicalism’.

In fact, one needs to go further. Even the working classes are ‘inherently’ permeated with bourgeois or petty bourgeois ideology and consciousness. Unless they consciously acquire working class ideology and consciousness, they too ‘normally’ remain non-working class in outlook. One of the primary tasks of the Marxists in any country is precisely to carry the working class ideology to the working classes. All Marxism has ever held is that it is easier and natural for the working class to acquire proletarian ideology because it is its own class ideology. But the act of its conscious acquisition is still involved. Nor does mere trade unionism, even in the case of a worker, inculcate proletarian ideology. This, by the way, is elementary Marxism; otherwise the US and British workers with their powerful trade unions would have made the socialist revolution long, long ago.

The overriding necessity for emphasis on ideology in a country like India arises out of another important aspect of Marxist politics. Inevitably, because of the low cultural level of the masses, the Marxist movements and parties rely on petty bourgeois youth to build their ranks and to carry Marxist ideas and politics to the peasants and workers. However, this simultaneously opens the way to the penetration of Marxist thought and parties by the ideologies and the life and work styles of the dominating classes. This was and is an objective limitation in the situation. But it was necessary to break out of its boundaries and to transform and transcend the objective necessity. The only way out lay in an intensive programme of ideological education within the ranks of those who have politically come over to Marxism. This task has seldom been seriously undertaken in India, with the result that those who propagate the party programme or lead militant economic and political struggles remain deeply imbued with bourgeois or even feudal ideas.

The mistake made here is two-fold: the belief that participation in the political movement and membership in a Marxist political party, and grasp of the party programme would automatically lead to the transformation of a person’s ideology. But a party card cannot cleanse an individual of the previously dominant ideology the way Ganga water or a taviz are supposed to do.

Secondly, in India ideological education has invariably meant the study of the current political programme, policy resolutions, and agitational literature. The study of Marxian classics and of Marxism as theory and system of ideas as elements in ideological remoulding and in inculcating a new way of thinking itself has always been neglected. Now, the study of party programme, etc., is certainly necessary for political action, but the party programme cannot act as a Kalma or a mantra whose recitation guarantees a change in ideology, for a change in ideology is not like a change in religion.

It is to be noted that the Indian Marxists have made little effort to find out what forms do bourgeois, petty bourgeois, feudal, and colonial ideologies take in their own ranks. Consequently, such elementary manifestations of these ideologies as bossism, hierarchy, competition, jealousy, lack of comradeship and trust, and careerism within the party and outside, a basic non-democratic personality structure (often betraying feudal outlook), tendency to uncritically ape and adopt things and ideas foreign, prevail unchecked.

It should also be pointed out that the problem is not solved simply by recruiting more cadre from the working class, though this would be a distinct step forward. Ideologically, even the Marxists of working class origin are only a few steps ahead of others. Firstly, their own existing ideology is bourgeois. Secondly, they too are constantly surrounded by a hostile ideological and social atmosphere which daily and hourly affects their consciousness. They too tend to get impregnated with bourgeois ideology and life-style. They too need constant ideological education and struggle.

A recent manifestation of the failure to see the proper role of the petty bourgeois youth and ideology is the widespread belief that the students’ main role today is to act as revolutionaries on their own or in their own right and not as carriers of Marxist ideology and as potential cadre of the Marxist movement, which would put emphasis on their own acquisition of Marxism as theory and ideology. Inevitably, what results is only the growth of petty bourgeois radicalism.

Another aspect of the weak theoretical base of the Marxists in India is the repeated failure to raise practical problems and political issues to the level of theory. Instead, theory’s main use is found in the post facto justification or denunciation of an essentially pragmatic policy. In practice, party programme and resolutions, which are the consequences of the practical application of Marxist theory, are invariably confused with theory, and education in Marxist theory and ideology gets confined to the study of the party programme and resolutions.

Consequently, the rank and file Marxists or even leaders become incapable of critically evaluating the prorgramme and political practice based on it. The leaders change the programme pragmatically when it has ‘failed’—that is, it no longer corresponds with life even as a shadow—and the ranks of members and sympathisers either leave the party in bewilderment since they have nothing to hold on to in the absence of faith in the programme, or they stick to it out of loyalty to the movement and the party hoping and praying that the new programme will not meet the fate of the old one. Theory is now brought in to explain why the old programme and policies failed—but after they have failed in practice. The fact is that prorgramme-based political education can harness the enthusiasm and activity of the people temporarily and is necessary, especially during periods of intense political activity, that is, during and before the revolutionary situation, but it fails miserably in sustaining a prolonged revolutionary consciousness and therefore political activity. For that the inculcation of Marxism is needed.5

Moreover, the underplaying of the role of theory and ideology leads to the propagation of an entirely mechanical and ‘vulgar’ understanding of Marxism and to its dogmatic application. In other words, even the theory that is sometimes applied is a flawed one. Even worse, what is sometimes applied is not even bad or dogmatic Marxism, it is not Marxism at all—take away the verbiage and nothing is left.

In the Marxist writing on India one rarely sees—with the exception of Ajoy Ghosh and E.M.S. Namboodiripad at their best—the subtle and dialectical application of theory in the manner of Marx or Lenin. What we have is the one-sided stolidity of Stalin’s dictums. It is one of the profoundest tragedies of Indian Marxism that from its infancy it was brought up on Stalin’s writings rather than on those of Marx, Engels, and Lenin.

This neglect of theory and ideology has many facets and consequences, only a few of which can be discussed here. For one, the theoretical and agitational tasks are mixed up, with the result that the theoretical effort is often conducted as agitation, while agitation is carried on in the language of theory so that it often goes above the heads of those who are to be agitated. Similarly, in the absence of correct theoretical foundation, the Indian Marxists constantly swing from one extreme to the other. The later theoreticians describe each swing as a punishment for the earlier swing, but weakness in theory invariably fails to stem the swing from going to the other extreme. What a heavy price is paid for the absence of theory among the rank and file Marxists!

Neglect of ideology by the Marxists has meant that one of the strongest props of the existing social order is virtually left intact. Long ago, in its very infancy, Marxism grasped that force is only the ultimate weapon of defence of the dominating social classes, and that it is through control over the ideas of all men—including the exploited and the suppressed—that a social order is stabilised. This is even more so in a modern bourgeois democracy where the social order is legitimised through a subtle and complex network of ideas and institutions. A basic task of those who want to overthrow class domination through mass action and mass organisation is to dethrone the ideas of the ruling classes from the minds of men and to imbue them with an alternative consciousness. Not only has this task been neglected but even its importance has not been properly recognised.

Emphasis on spontaneity and economism has inevitably meant radicalisation of men’s politics without overhauling of their thought processes. Spontaneous consciousness is seldom working class consciousness even in the case of workers and never in the case of the petty bourgeoisie. Consequently, what is born again and again is bourgeois or petty bourgeois radical consciousness which is sooner or later absorbed by the complex ideological and political structure of the existing social system or is even utilised to strengthen it.

An interesting example is that of the rapidly spreading popular sentiment and struggle against corruption. But the entire struggle and consciousness are developing within the ambit of bourgeois or petty bourgeois ideology; the Marxists merely put the gloss of formal Marxism over it. For example, in Parliament there is little to distinguish the performance on this question of the anti-communist H.V. Kamath or Raj Narain from that of the Marxist MPs. And an excellent opportunity to lay bare before the people the negative character of capitalism and thus to help transform their ideological parameters is missed.

The neglect of ideology has led to an overall failure to initiate a wider cultural revolution that would cover all aspects of people’s lives as is done by the socially dominant classes who leave no area of life outside their economic, political, intellectual or cultural influence and control. On the other hand, it is common in India for even Marxists to have the most traditional ideas of religion, of caste, of relationship with women, of careers and aspirations for their children, of popular and national culture. There has hardly been any worthwhile struggle by the Marxists against the mental bondage and religious superstition to which the Indian people have been subjected for centuries. The caste system has been a major barrier to political unification of the working people in the countryside. Yet the struggle against it, and a very weak struggle indeed, has been confined to the cities in large parts of the country.

Here was scope enough to expose the utter inadequacy of underdeveloped capitalism to advance society, and for the working class to emerge as the leader of the entire submerged humanity and of social progress in general. Here was opportunity for the Marxists to win the cooperation of the best of bourgeois thinkers and humanists who are not yet able to come over to Marxism but who are able to see the betrayal of their own social and cultural ideals by the capitalist social order and who could be helped to see that the Marxists and the working class alone can maintain and advance all that is best in the achievements of humanity in general and the Indian people in particular.6 Moreover such struggle would immediately separate the Marxist radicals from the ‘Right-wing radicals’, for the latter can join in the struggle for higher wages but not in the struggle for the ideological remolding of the people.

Once theory and ideology were neglected, it was inevitable that the Indian Marxists would find no ‘role’ for the intellectual as an intellectual. He should be active on the peace or friendship fronts or in his own professional associations and trade unions. He could contribute to the movement financially. But there did not exist any ‘task’ for him in his own field. And since no theoretical or ideological work was being done by the Marxist parties, he had no role as an ideologue or propagator of Marxism, not to speak of a creative Marxist in his own chosen field. All Marxian wisdom in the different fields of human thought and activity is to be derived from the ‘party’, which in practice means one or two men in the top leadership or at the most a few top intellectuals to whom this right is delegated by some mysterious and immanent process. That intellectual effort is a collective effort of the many has been completely missed. Instead, using the example of Marx or Lenin or Mao, the notion of the cult of one or a few all-knowing Marxist theoreticians has been spread widely.

The questioning intellectual is silenced off, and given a guilty feeling in the bargain, with the assertions (i) that what are needed are not ‘pure’ researchers but men of political action, and (ii) that, since he is not practicing, he cannot see the reality or make an analysis of society. The implication is that intellectual or ideological work is not political practice.

The logic is usually not taken further; for example, that Bakunin, the traveling initiator of revolutions the world over, and the hard-working British trade union and labour leaders were doing political practice but Marx, studying in the British Museum, was not; or that participating in, and hopefully, winning, student union or teachers association elections is politics but scientifically studying one’s society or spreading Marxist ideas or fighting against reactionary ideas is not politics. Is it then surprising that Marxist students of bourgeois or petty bourgeois origin have for decades spent more time and effort in fighting for ‘student demands’ or fighting student union elections than in acquiring Marxism for themselves, imparting it to others, and studying Indian society in its light? Here they have of course been dutifully following in the footsteps of their Marxist teachers.

Let me make two points very clear at this stage. I am not out to exalt the intellectual or the intellectual function which is a basic feature of all class societies. I am only suggesting that they be assigned their due place in the struggle for social revolution. Secondly, social analysis, the development of Marxist theory, and ideological work are not by any means the task only or even in the main of the Marxists making their living as intellectuals. It is the task of all Marxists.


The weakness of the Indian Marxists in Marxist theory has many aspects, so that Marxism has been seldom in practice used as a guide to social analysis and political action. In fact it has been seldom living Marxism or Marxism as a science that has been applied in India.

For instance, quite often a thesis is believed to have been proved if enough examples are brought out in its favour. No search for counter-examples is made, nor is an analysis made of the dominant tendencies. For example, the fact that elements of various social formations always coexist in history for long periods7 is used to prove through selective example the existence of one’s favourite thesis regarding the character of the social system and state power in India. Or that any government follows at any moment a multiplicity of policies, some of which pull in opposite directions, is used to bring out only those instance of policy which prove one’s current point of view. The entire Marxian concept of the chief contradiction or of the emerging and dominating tendency is often missed, except formally.

An even worse form of scientific sloppiness is the habit of verifying a thesis through anecdotes or stray instances, or proving it by just stating or asserting it in a different form, etc. An interesting example of this sloppiness is the mixing up of two separate questions: the extent of the penetration and control of Indian economy by foreign capital and the extent of exploitation by the already invested foreign capital. Both questions are important and are inter-related; but they are also distinctly different with different political and economic aspects and policy implications.

One also finds a certain lack of scientific precision in the use of Marxian terms. This is a bit surprising, for Indian Marxists have built up quite a tradition of quibbling about minor words. Let me give an example. The term landlord has been used by Marx and Marxists to signify a landowner who extracts from a tenant either feudal rent (feudal or semi-feudal landlord) or capitalist rent (capitalist landlord as in Britain).8 On the other hand, a farmer who uses hired labour and manages a farm as a miniature factory has been described as a capitalist farmer (an element of ‘rent’ in his profits remains).

Yet, we have today Indian Marxists who base their agrarian analysis and programme on the definition of a landlord as one who owns more then a certain acreage of land and who and whose family members do not work with their hands. Here is a class being defined not with reference to its relation to the means of production and to other men in the process of production but by a virtual moral category.9 By this definition all capitalists could be described as landlords. We are back to the pre-Marx radicalism and socialism.

It is, moreover, not realised that the vast mass of large rural landowners (10-30 acres of wetland) would be excluded by the definition of ‘not working with their hands’, and only the purely capitalist farmers would find themselves being declared capitalist landlords. But instead of a frank statement that in India capitalist agriculture should be abolished in favour of petty commodity production, we have recourse to dubious theory and sloppy thinking. Another allied example can be given. The Indian Marxists do not even use the category ‘peasant bourgeoisie’ what to speak to analyzing its social, economic, and political role. The category kulak is sometimes used in politics, but we are seldom told as to who constitutes a kulak.

There are no Marxian formulations which are not historically specific. Lenin, for example, repeatedly stressed that there are no fixed formulae or general statements apart from their concrete historical context.10 An important aspect of this historical specificity is the knowledge of a country’s peculiarities and historical development. “Marxist theory absolutely requires,” he wrote in 1914, “that every social question be examined within definite historical limits and…..—if it refers to a particular country—that due account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others within the same historical epoch.”11 He further emphasised that it was particularly important “to establish concrete economic facts and to proceed from concrete realities, not from abstract postulates”.12

Now, it is remarkable that on the whole, and for nearly 50 years, the Indian Marxists have evolved their programmes and policies, strategies and tactics, without making an exact appraisal of ‘the specific historical situation and, primarily, of economic conditions’, that is, without making a historical and economic study of India.14 Whatever economic analysis has come—historical development being largely ignored14— has in each period followed the programme and has come as its post facto justification. The answers have not followed study or establishment of concrete economic facts but preceded it. At a cruder plane, this has sometimes resulted in the wholesale foisting on India, including even the language, of the analysis made specifically in a country that has been more successful in making a revolution.

This failure to make a deep and serious study and analysis of the Indian social situation has been a major deficiency of the Indian Marxists. This has sometimes been done in the name of the supremacy of practice. Now, it is true that a Marxist studies society primarily with a view to change it, but he studies it all the same. In fact, Marxism is precisely different from other world views not only because it links theory or knowledge to practice but also because it assigns a very high place to social knowledge as an instrument of changing society.

The result has been the frequent inability to grasp the reality as it is changing. The Indian Marxists have quite often used Marxism successfully only when explaining what happened 10 or 15 or 20 years back. And this has, of course, been disastrous when faced with the political leaders of the ruling classes who have learnt many of the lessons of the past and who have developed quite a capacity to grasp the changing political and economic situation even when the constraints of class interests have prevented them from acting positively on that knowledge.

The neglect of Marxism as a system of thought has led to some peculiar confusions of which two or three may be discussed here. For example, the Indian Marxists have consistently failed to distinguish the State from a government. The State is the executive committee of the ruling classes, it looks after their overall and long term interests. It is the expression of the hegemony of a certain social class or classes over society and social development during a certain stage of social development. The government is a changing bloc of classes, parties, and political forces. The bourgeois state of pre-1832 Britain was led by semi-feudal aristocracy; the semi-feudal Czarist regime promoted the growth of capitalism; the bourgeois State of France acquired in 1851 a petty bourgeois Emperor.

On the one hand, their characterisation of the State is often that of a government and therefore leads to an incorrect definition of a stage of social development and therefore of revolution; on the other hand, since the character of the State does not change during a stage of revolution, while that of the government does often, their characterisation of the government as State gives their politics a rigidity which prevents all flexibility in tactics. Moreover, it prevents them from understanding the changing contours of governments and government policies, reduces analysis from a theoretical to an agitational plane, takes out all subtlety out of political analysis, and promotes instead a conspiracy theory of history and politics.

If the ‘State’, that is, the government in Marxian terms, has a permanent class base and policy, then all shifts in governmental policies, which Marxists would normally see as the consequence of changes in the balance of political forces either within the domain of the dominating classes or class or in their relationship to the dominated classes, are seen as the diabolical effort—the much used word is manoeuvre—of the ruling class or the fixed coalition of the ruling classes of bamboozle the people. Thus in place of individuals conspiring the classes become the conspirators. But it is a conspiracy theory of history all the same.

Let me give an example from recent history. The Congress split in 1969. Almost every serious Marxist or Marxist party had to adopt a concrete political stance, often different to their previous stances. Yet, this was done without making a concrete class and political analysis of the contending groups precipitating the split in the Congress. The reaction was pragmatic and without any theoretical effort to guide it. This was in part the result of the rigidity in describing the government (the ‘State’) as a fixed bloc of classs.

Linked to this weakness in theory, and even more important, is the failure to make a Marxian analysis of the social classes, political parties, and politics and their linkages and interrelationship. Consequently, a vulgar—in the Marxian sense—understanding of politics prevails. There is the failure to understand the role of political parties in a modern State in general and in a bourgeois democratic political system in particular. At a more complex plane, the relative autonomy, as distinct structures, of political parties, leaderships and elites as political representatives of social classes is ignored. Also missed are the role of the State as the overall guardian of the social system as a whole, of all sections of the ruling classes, of the long term interests of these classes, and the fact that these functions are performed by governments composed of representatives of blocs of classes, strata, and sections, who have their own personal traits and interests as a political leaders and parties.

Such a complex understanding of complex social phenomena would normally enable the Marxists to see that governments are capable of going against the narrower individual or group interests of sections of the ruling classes, sometimes of the short-term interests of the entire ruling class, and, when pressed by the masses, even the long-term interests of the subordinate, junior members of the ruling classes. Political parties and leaderships would then be clearly seen as distinct structures though based on and representing the political interests of the social classes, and the two would not be confused and muddled together in economic and political analysis.

Reading Indian Marxist literature, one would not even know correctly how a social class, for example, the capitalists, controls a political party. The impression is that this is done by bribing the leaders, by financing the party and its election campaigns, and by such other direct controls. While there is plenty of such influence and control, this certainly does not constitute the heart of the matter. The capitalist class controls, promotes, and brings down political parties and leaderships primarily by controlling the production process, that is, the economy. It can bring any regime to heel by going ‘shy’, etc. And so a political leadership is compelled to pay heed to the social interests of the capitalist class. Similarly, it bows before the monopolists not mainly because they have more money or because they are big in size but because their control over the economy is even tighter.14a

An interesting example of the failure of Indian Marxists to apply class analysis to politics is found in the virtual abandonment of the use of the words petty bourgeoisie in their political and social analysis. Going through the Marxist writing on India one will not find out as to which parties, or factions, or policies represent the interests of the urban or the rural petty bourgeoisie. Reading them one would never know that the petty bourgeoisie have been and are an active, perhaps the most active, and influential political strata in Indian politics since the last 50 years or more.

Today, every class, every political force is rightly making the most determined attempt to acquire hegemony over the politics of this ‘class’, to harness its political influence and energies to its own class interests. In fact, before 1947, the Indian bourgeoisie was successful in both struggling against imperialism and keeping this struggle confined within bourgeois limits because of its hegemony over the politics of the petty bourgeoisie. From restricted land reform to bank nationalisation, from ‘unlimited’ expansion of university, including technical, education to the salary scales in the government and public sector organisations, from the brutal suppression of peasant protests to the kid glove treatment of the linguistic agitations, student struggles, etc., one witnesses the efforts of the post-1947 bourgeois governments to keep this volatile, politicalised, and politically effective conglomeration of classes and strata on their right side.

It is not of course suggested that the Marxists should ignore the petty bourgeoisie15 or not exert themselves to the full to win it over to their side. But it is imperative that they specifically analyse this ‘class’, its interests, its politics, etc., and demarcate their own politics from its politics. They must take up its cause, but do so with their eyes open. And they should in no case follow petty bourgeois policies and describe them as Marxist. Their aim should be to establish the political and ideological hegemony of the proletariat over the petty bourgeoisie and not vice versa.

The theoretical weakness of the Indian Marxists also explains the repeated recrudescence of certain false or non-issues as controversies. Before 1947, the Marxists at regular intervals agreed to differentiate the revolutionary content of their politics from that of Gandhiji’s politics on the basis of the use of violent or non-violent methods, while in reality the question always was that of the role of the masses, of their organisation, and of mass action. After 1947, they have repeatedly let themselves be divided over the question of parliamentary versus non-parliamentary work. In both cases, they have ignored the basic writings of Marx, Engels, and Lenin; and specifically Lenin’s.

It should also be noted that this is precisely the sort of dichotomy which bourgeois political thinkers and leaders like to utilise for demarcating their politics from Marxist politics. Above all, it is obvious that those who cannot mobilise and activise the masses in militant ‘non-violent’ politics could hardly do so in ‘violent politics’, or that persons and leaders who got corrupted by parliamentary work could hardly have survived other forms of corruption for long. Instead of parliamentary work being used to test leaders, it is suggested that the leaders should be ‘saved’ by not being subjected to parliamentary temptations. This novel method of keeping the purity of the advance guard could perhaps occur only in a country whose people have for centuries tried to protect the ‘virtue’ of their women by putting them in purdah and the brahmcharya of their youth by sending them to the forests.

I may add just two other points. Firstly, this way of posing the question even evades a proper definition of what Marxists call ‘parliamentarianism’. Parliamentarianism is not fighting elections and working in parliaments; it is to place an inherent value on winning elections and seats in Parliament, it is to want to win them by political opportunism, it is to place higher value on winning elections than on politicalising and organising the masses, and on parliamentary elections and speeches than on politics as such. So defined, parliamentarianism is wider than Parliament. It can cover efforts to win majorities in trade unions, teachers’ associations, and student unions; it can cover even the organisation of demonstrations, hartals, and bandhs. The question always is of the nature of the politics that one is practicing.

Secondly, to pose the issue of forms of struggle in the way it has been done is to ignore the historical and sociological fact that no people like to go through greater pain than is historically necessary, that people would not follow a road of greater sacrifice till the roads of lesser sacrifice are barred to them, that people have to learn the inadequacy of lower forms of struggle from their own experience. Lenin revealed full understanding of this fact by following extremely complex and all-sided tactics during 1917. Instead of posing the question of power as that of violence or non-violence or of parliamentary versus non-parliamentary road to power, he constantly asked: power to whom—to the Provisional Government and the Constituent Assembly or to the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies?

The Communist Party of China, led by Mao Ze-dong, leading the longest armed revolutionary struggle in history, agreed to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Chiang Kai-shek during 1945-47; in the end the Chinese people could see that the Chinese Communist Party fought for peace, democracy, national unity and end to the civil war while the Kuomintang forced a civil war on the country in order to keep its dictatorship intact. And the Vietnamese people, fighting a historic armed struggle, followed the most flexible of tactics throughout.

The point is that a Marxist does not agree to pose the question this way—that is, violence versus non-violence or parliamentary versus non-parliamentary work—just as he would not stake all on ‘non-violent’ or parliamentary work or ignore preparations to meet the violence of the ruling classes with all measures including revolutionary violence. To a Marxist the real task is to organise and mobilise the masses. A politically conscious, organised, and mobilised people would certainly use, and would be capable of using, all forms of struggle that a historical situation may make imperative. ‘Higher’ forms of struggle cannot be a substitute for the inadequacy of the Marxists in applying the ‘lower’ forms of political struggle.


Almost all aspects of the weakness of the Indian Marxists in analysing the social reality, in applying Marxism to India, in evolving correct political practice, and in the failure to correct mistakes in all fields in time,16 are linked to the virtual absence of free discussion among them. The need for free discussion is seldom denied in theory; it is, however, denied in practice as a result of several well-entrenched thought processes or political formulae.

1. First, at every stage there exists the firm assumption that, whatever might have been the mistakes in the past, finally truth has been reached in the current political understanding embodied usually in a precise programme. Free discussion would, therefore, it is assumed, serve no useful purpose and would, on the other hand, detract from united political action. This is of course not true at any time. At the most this reasoning may become partially valid when the actual process of revolution is going on. But often this reasoning serves as an alibi for the denial of free debate. Instead, it serves, along with other factors, to perpetuate the idea that the current moment is revolutionary or near revolutionary and is, therefore, unsuitable for free debate.

It may be pointed out that some of the most creative thinking was done by Marx and Lenin during 1848 and 1917 respectively, that Lenin developed his ideas and programme and tactics in a free debate with his comrades precisely between March and November 1971, that some of the richest and sharpest polemics in the history of Soviet Marxism occurred during the period of the Civil War and the International Intervention during 1918-22 when often the very life of the new Soviet regime was in danger, that Mao Ze Dong succeeded in changing his party’s line precisely during the Long March and developed new concepts and programme, and even organised a major rectification campaign inside the party, during the life and death struggle against Japanese imperialism.

2. Free debate has also been avoided in India in the name of secrecy and this often when the daily movements of the leaders, their collective gatherings, and party conferences and congresses are held with full fanfare and newspaper publicity and when almost anybody with whatever antecedents can gain easy entrance into the parties and groups. Soemtimes, then, in the name of secrecy, what is offered is inner-party discussion within the small cell for members and occasional chit-chat for sympathisers. But the basic fact is that free debate can be free only if it is also an open debate, except on questions relating to the actual implementation of tactics. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party succeeded in observing this principle even under conditions of complete illegality, Czarist repression, and complete absence of civil liberties. It is much easier, and more imperative, to do so in bourgeois democracies with all their disguised and undisguised respressive mechanism and instruments.

In the absence of open debate, free debate tends to become a mere formality, an empty ritual, for if a person cannot reach out to others, cannot communicate his ideas to others, who may be beginning to think in the same direction, or who can by the force of argument be persuaded to do so, then he has got no right to free debate in practice.

3. The Indian Marxist political worker or intellectual has learnt to exercise drastic, and disastrous, self-censorship. This is itself the result of several factors. The cult of the great man or men has greately eroded the democratic and scientific notion that the acquisition of knowledge of society is a collective activity. The average Indian Marxist therefore genuinely comes to feel that he is not fit to think on or debate matters of theory, ideology, and higher or broader political practice. His thinking and discussion are confined to his own particular area of work and understanding of the current programme and resolutions, and, in rare cases, to asking a higher leader to come and remove his ‘doubts’ in a question-answer session conducted most reverentially.Those who strong belief in their capacity to think wait for and work for the chance to join the select ranks of leaders who have the ‘right’ to think for themselves.

Secondly, the Indian Marxist is terribly afraid of being considered or of becoming a heretic or a deviationist. The basic Leninist emphasis on the need for a monolithic revolutionary party gradually created the sentiment that being considered an anti-party element was worse than death. A person, party or non-party, who was once ‘outcasted’, lost all human contact with other like-minded people. His life, intellectual or political, tended to become a desert. To a certain extent this power to outcaste, to anathematise, was as powerful a weapon in the hands of leaderships in Opposition to silence criticism or prevent free debate as were more dire forms of control and suppression in the hands of leaderships wielding State power.

The Marxist intellectual would, therefore, not think or at least not publicise any thoughts even relating to ‘an exact appraisal of the specific historical situation and, primarily, of economic conditions’, if these thoughts contradicted the current programme . And if he did want to publish such thoughts, where would he do so? The established Marxist organs would not publish what he wrote, and any publication outside these organs only went to prove that he was taking bourgeois help and therefore his thoughts were being rightly anathematised! Gradually, the Indian Marxist was drained of the courage and the will to think critically. It was better to play safe, even if it meant giving up the quality that Marx prized above all and that had originally brought him within the Marxist fold.

Similarly, the rank and file Marxist worker felt safer in feeding back the middle level leader, who in turn fed back the higher leadership, an image of reality that corresponded more to the programme and resolutions than to what he was actually seeing or hearing or thinking. Gradually this tended to become a habit so that he genuinely and in all seiousness did not see or hear anything other than what his particular grasp of the programme, etc., indicated. Any ‘heresy’ then becomes an act not of will or thought but of failure to understand the programme, etc. Inevitably, the sole test of the soundness of the political and ideological health of a person tended to become not his ideology, his politics, his political commitment and work, but his ‘loyalty’ to the programme, etc.

Under such conditions, how was it possible to raise basic questions regarding Indian economy, society, classes and class struggle, the State, and government policies? Marx and Lenin might insist that Marxism must be constantly enriched or that it must always be applied afresh to new conditions and to specific historical societies and situations. But can those Marxists do so over whose heads hangs constantly the sword of ‘deviation’?

It may also be pointed out that the very notion of ‘deviation’ contains the germs of self-censorship, for free thought and free debate mean nothing if they do not include the possibility, and even the inevitability, of committing errors in thought or action. Marxism demands that a person should be willing, and should have the intellectual and political modesty and integrity, to admit his mistakes once other thought and action have proved him wrong. However, he who wants to think freely, creatively, and in a historically specific manner but without making mistakes and ‘deviations’ had better not even make the attempt. In this respect, even a hurried reading of the correspondence between Fredrick Engels and Paul and Laura Lafargue between 1882 and 189517 is quite rewarding. Engels is constantly trying to grasp the changing French political situation, and quite often finds his analysis and predictions proved wrong by the unfolding of events. Yet at all stages he remains a non-deviationist!

Even the top leaders of the Marxist parties become victims of the notion of deviation. If every word that one has written can be later held as proof of deviationist tendencies, it is better to swim in the mainstream so that if proved wrong later, one is in good non-deviationist company.

The lack of freedom to think critically and to follow one’s thoughts through has produced another tendency that leads to what may be described as ‘the disaster school of thought’. Analysis must show constant deterioration in every field of life and the constant weakening of the enemy and the constant growing of the people’s camp. Anything else would amount to ‘praising’ the enemy and giving him indirect ‘support’ and ‘succour’, etc. That Marxism is precisely the scientific study of society, that it is the philosophy of the working class not because it is pro-working class but because the working class interests and world view today correspond to the scientific view of society is forgotten. Marxists study real society to change it; they do not like practitioners of magic change it by portraying it in sympathetic colours. One sometimes wonders whether the historical account of the rise and role of Capitalism in Das Capital and Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia could have been written in India without inviting the charge of being a ‘glorification’ of the ruling class and the capitalist system.

4. The fourth, and perhaps the most important, factor in the lack of free discussion is what may be described as ‘the theory of confusion’, which has, moreover, certain other roots and dimensions. The Indian Marxists are terribly afraid of one thing—that other Marxists, particularly those coming from the poorer and illiterate sections or those constituting the rank and file, even when coming from the educated strata, would get confused. This fear, this spectre, has haunted them for the last 30 years or more. Any open and free discussion has the possibility of spreading confusion. The best way to avoid confusion, many come to believe, lies not in making the people and the politically involved understanding the social reality or the programme through clash of ideas and their own political experience and practice, but in keeping ‘wrong’ and ‘confusing’ ideas out of their reach.

This ‘fear of confusion’ is produced by, and produces in turn, several other phenomena. It is the result of the middle and upper class roots of many of the Marxists and the consequent feudal and bourgeois ideological remnants in their minds. Feudal and bourgeois ideologies inculcate contempt for the masses and fear of them. Their influence leads a person, even a Marxist, to believe that the masses, even the petty bourgeois literate masses, are dumb and would get confused if any but clear-cut and predetermined ideas are put before them. This also explains the refusal to take Marxism, as distinct from a party programme, to the people, lest they get confused.18 As a Marxist leader of Delhi once put it to workers clamouring for education in Marxism in the early 1950s, “half-baked Marxism is bad for workers”. The reasoning was very clear: since workers had no ‘brains’ and could therefore acquire only ‘half-baked’ and not ‘subtle’ Marxism, they were better off without any Marxism at all.

Consequently, the Indian Marxists have made few serious attempts to spread adult education among workers, peasants, and women and subsequently to bring to them the best of the cultural and intellectual heritage of humanity. And since a party programme and trade union activity alone cannot produce a working class intelligentsia, the Indian proletariat has failed to produce intellectuals and leaders from within its own class ranks. Instead of playing its historical role as the carrier of Marxism to the working class and thus initiating the socialist movement, the middle class Marxist intelligentsia has become its perpetual leader, whatever might have been its subjective intentions.

Once the ‘theory of confusion’ prevails, it is also applied to the petty bourgeois intelligentsia and even the Marxists, who are sought to be protected from ‘confusion’ by discouraging real discussion or even exposure to clashing opinions or views of reality. Increasingly, the closed mind is seen as the best guarantee against confusion. The ‘thinking function’ is then transferred to a few persons, who are given this ‘right’ either because of a long record of leadership or because of some ‘mysterious’ or ‘immanent’ process, usually linked to their nearness to some leader.19 They are ‘safe’ and are sure not to spread ‘confusion’.

Secondly, the Indian Marxists, including the intellectuals, have acquired and produced, a deep anti-intellectual bias and tradition. An intellectual, even the Marxist one, is often seen as the potential carrier of germs of confusion. Thus, instead of all Communists being seen as intellectuals, as Gramsci suggested, the intellectual is seen as a potential subversive, as a threat, especially if he insists on thinking, and expressing his thought, for thought without expression is no thought; such unexpressed thought—‘thought for thought’s sake’—even the most authoritarian structures permit. This is not to say that the intellectual is not shown ‘respect’. He is shown plenty of respect, so long as he is a mere ‘flag’—a non-intellectual in practice. I must of course make it clear that I am not discussing the question of the ‘importance’ of the intellectual, for no Marxist worth his salt can for a moment believe in exalting the intellectual function over other social and political functions or in separating the former from the latter.

Thirdly, the fear of ‘confusion’ also partially explains the attitude of neglect of and arrogance towards non-Marxian thought in the social sciences as also the neglect and fear of Marxist theory. And thus resulted a recent slogan that the more a person reads—even if these be the writings of Marx, Lenin, or Mao—the more of a fool he becomes. The young men who put forward this slogan so frankly and so honestly were merely laying bare a deep-seated anti-theory and anti-intellectual attitude that has been the bane of Indian Marxism from its very inception, only normally it finds more disguised expression.

Two further points may be made in this respect. There have been short periods in the history of Marxism when free debate has taken place to a limited extent. This was the case from 1933 to 1939 when it was choked off on the assumption that since the prevailing confusion had been cleared and a rapidly growing Marxist-Leninist party with a correct political line founded, there was no further need for free discussion. Similarly, basic issues were raised and discussed in the 1950s as a result of the disaster that overtook Indian Marxists from 1948 to 1950. But then it was once again choked off in the 1960s in the name of fighting against revisionism or Left-wing deviations and organisational looseness. The latter, interestingly enough, has continued to prevail and even grow; only free debate has been brought to an end. That the Indian Marxists are no nearer to making ‘an exact appraisal of the specific historical situation, and primarily of economic conditions’ of India and of ‘the specific features’ distinguishing it from others within our epoch, shows where real failure has lain.

To sum up: the specific task before Indian Marxists was and still remains to understand the specific historical situation and conditions of India and on that basis to organise the people for the overthrow of the existing social system; in other words, to make the Indian revolution. And for that it is necessary to overcome the basic weaknesses discussed above: (a) the neglect of political work among the basic working classes: the industrial workers, the agricultural labourers, and the poor peasants; (b) the near absence of ideological work and political education and agitation; (c) the failure to spread Marxism as a world view; (d) the failure to study the concrete Indian reality fearlessly and objectively; and (e) the virtual absence of free and open debate among the Marxists.

(Courtesy: Seiminar, June 1974)


1. The theory of Indian exceptionalism and spiritualism, ‘foreignness’ of Marxism, and intellectual derision by the sophisticated bourgeois intellectuals were often used to denigrate or deny the applicability of Marxism to India till the early 1960s.

2. They had Lenin’s clear-cut guidance in this respect. See Bipan Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India, New Delhi, 1979, pp. 297ff. Instead they wasted their energies on debating sterile questions such as which class should have hegemony in the anti-imperialist struggle, whether the bourgeoisie had gone over to imperialism or not, should the struggle be violent or non-violent, and so on.

3. I may point out parenthetically that ’comrades’ fail even when it comes to doing something for the people. Either they refuse to fight adequately, or even at all, for reforms in the name of revolution; or the reforms they fight for benefit not the basic exploited rural classes and the vast mass of the unorganised urban proletariat but the middle and rich peasants and the strata of organised white collar and fatory workers. In other words, for the former, the ’comrades’ are not even good reformers.

4. To celebrate unreservedly the victories of the politics of other classes is, to use one of Tilak‘s phrases, to enjoy ‘decorating another‘s wife‘.

5. Note should also be taken of the fact that the Bolshevik programme already included in it basic elements of Marxism such as nature of state power, workers‘ control, dictatorship of the proletariat, the incapacity to solve the problems of the poor peasants, etc. In India party programmes have been basically non-theoretical.

6. Unfortunately, the Indian Marxists rarely raise questions relating to values and quality of life, humanism, etc. All social failure or success is reduced to statistics of production. But not many decades back the Marxists used to keep such questions in the forefront of their critique of the existing social order.

7. "In England, modern society is indisputably developed most highly and classically in its economic structure. Nevertheless the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form, even there. Middle and transitional stages obliterate even here all definite boundaries..." Karil Marx, Capital, Vol. III, Charles H. Kerr and Co., Chicago, 1990, p. 1031.

8. "The owners of mere labour-power, the owners of capital, and the landlords, whose respective sources of income and wages, profit and ground rent, in other words, wage labourers, capitalists and landlords, form the three great classes of modern society resting upon the capitalist mode of production.” Ibid.

9. “Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it. Classes are groups of people one of which can appropriate the labour of another owing to the different places they occupy in a definite system of social economy”. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow, Vol. 29, p. 421.

10. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22, Moscow, p. 149 fn.

11. Lenin, The National-Liberation Movement in the East, 2nd impression, Moscow, 1969, p. 70. Also pp 70-1.

12. Ibid., p. 264.

13. The brilliant work of R. Palme Dutt appeared too late to influence the politics of the pre-1947 era and was immediately drowned in the politics of the post-1947 era. It has been widely read since then, but has not influenced Marxist politics to a significant extent, partially because his post-1950 writings became issues of controversy among the Marxists.

14. Contemporary history has been ignored except by E.M.S. Namboodiripad whose understanding of the historical development of Kerala has something to do with the grassroots development of Marxism there. His other historical writings also deserved to have had greater influence on the development of Indian Marxism. On the other hand, the fundamental writings of D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib have been influential among academics, but have so far failed to have an impact on politics.

14a.Cf. Excerpts from a diary entry made in September 1931 in London with reference to the Second Round Table Conferene. It is necessary to realise that England is also not one. One England is that of the humble and the oppressed, of the common poor people, of the daridra-narayan (poverty personified), which is welcoming Gandhiji, which has no animosity toward India, and which has no voice in Indian affairs. The other England is that of the ruling class (Thakurs), who rule and who have power and authority (Satta).One can say that if ten members of this class decide to give freedom to India, they can. Those who are greeting Gandhiji with hurrahs are powerless even though they are thousands in number. The state power is even now in the hands of this ruling class. In name only does there exist a labour government. When the labour government also tried to make noise and go out of line, the capitalists (Seths) refused to give it loans and Mr MacDonald came to his senses. Therefore, it is good to have the welcome of the poor, but the intentions of the ‘rulers’ are not good.” The writer? Ghanshyamdas Birla in Leaves from a Diary, in Hindi, 5th impression, 1958, pp. 26-7. Clearly , the Indian capitalists acquired very early a correct grasp of the nature of State power, of the ruling classes, and of the mechanism through which the bourgeoisie exercises control even in the most advanced bourgeois democracy of the world.

15. Unlike some bourgeois intellectuals, the Marxists do not use the word petty in petty bourgeoisie to slight it. To them, to be a bourgeois is much worse than to be a petty bourgeois for the former belongs to the category of class enemies while the latter is part of the camp of the people.

16. Lenin pointed out long ago that the real harm is caused not because mistakes are made—that is inevitable—but because they are not corrected in time.

17. F. Engels, Paul and Laura Lafargue, Correspondence, 3 Volumes, Moscow, 1959, 1960.

18. The whole thing becomes a vicious circle. Once the intellectual, theoretical, and cultural level of the workers and cadre remains low, the theory of confusion does start acquiring certain objective validity. This very low level in turn becomes an obstacle in the path of the struggle for free debate and spread of Marxist ideas.

19. There is a certain resemblance to similar phenomena in the past.For centuries the Brahmins alone could read or interpret the Vedas. Even the most ignorant Brhamin could do so. The Shudras and women were forbidden the study of Vedas. Even the most learned of them was not competent to interpret them precisely because of his or her not being a male Brahmin. Similarly in the colonial period, only those belonging to the charmed circle of Western-educational intelligentsia—and preferably those educated in the West—could provide thought on modern questions.

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