Marxism And The Postcolonial World: Footnotes to a Long March

Posted: 01/10/2007 by Aditya Nigam in Identity, Marxism, Religion
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By Aditya Nigam


This paper is as much about the postcolonial world as it is about marxism. More importantly, it is about the relationship about the two. I use the term ‘postcolonial’ here to refer to something more than a mere temporal marker – as more than something that comes after the end of colonialism. Rather, it refers to the entire region of the Three Continents (Abdel-Malik 1981) since the beginning of its encounter with colonialism, and through it, their encounter with modernity; it therefore points towards a whole range of conditions that mark it out as distinct from the first world – political, economic, psychological and cultural. If colonialism was the dominant agent of modernity in these societies, it was certainly no the only one. A certain marxism, particularly after the Russian revolution of 1917, became a potent force through which the emancipatory ideals of the secular-modern imagination entered this world. And yet there remains a continuous tension between the high discourse of modernity entailed in it and the existential situation of this world, which becomes complicated by the day.

The end of the twentieth century marks the end of a gigantic emancipatory project, probably the largest ever in history that was carried out in the name of that marxism, which met its end with the collapse of “actually existing socialism”. I will refer to this marxism as “canonical marxism” which rapidly degenerated from a vision of freedom into a massive project of social engineering, of trying to fit the whole world into One Past and One Future. In its entirely misplaced effort to efface all difference, it ended up, in the process, effacing itself.

The project of erasing difference began from within. In order to be able to cast the world in the single mould of the vision of the Third International and its inheritors, it was first necessary to erase difference from within its own ranks: its own ‘self’ had to be reconstituted, in a manner of speaking. What I call the “footnotes” to marxism are precisely those elements of its self, those currents of thought that comprised its rich variety before the onset of orthodoxy, that were waylaid and pushed to the margins. They are what Javeed Alam has, in the context of the philosophical traditions of modernity, called the “unembodied surplus” of the tradition (Alam 1999). The communist/marxist self that was expunged and thus pushed outside the text, as it were, has kept re-appearing in different ways in different times and places, occasionally, disguised in conventional modes of appearance. Even after the collapse, the idea of a communist future continues to survive in very different ways and continues to inspire struggles in large parts of the world, especially the Three Continents, including India – often outside the apparatuses of mainstream communist parties.

In this essay, I wish to open up the space for a reconstruction of a new emancipatory vision for the “Third world”, which cannot but draw heavily on marxism, even if it is marxism reincarnated for a postmarxist conjuncture. I am aware that the search for the “real” Marx is a futile one. For one thing, he is inaccessible. For another, the world that has traversed a century and a half since then demands much more than he can offer. After all, it was Marx who constantly reminded us that ideas can never have transhistorical validity; that they arise within given socio-historical contexts and become meaningful within them.

At one level, just like the “original Marx” is lost to us, so is the “pre-marx” era of human thought. The tradition of Marx permeates the very world we live in and the very air we breathe, to borrow an expression from Castoriadis (1987). Any new vision can only arise by passing through the multifarious practices of “actually existing marxism” – by way of a theoretical encounter with that legacy.

In this paper, I explore through an investigation of the fate of Marx’s doctrine, two inter-related sets of questions. The first set of questions relates to the problem of the specificity of the postcolonial world and the problems of simply “applying” theory born in the West to conditions so very different. This problem is further complicated, I will argue, because underlying the theory there was always the Eurocentric assumption of the invincibility of the West, thanks to its ‘higher level of development’/ ‘advanced mode of production’ and its being possessed of the magical wand of Science and Reason – that is History ( Future History?) embodied.

The second set of questions has to do with the ways in which marxism’s canonization itself led to the destruction of the emancipatory potential – both in its theory and in the organizational forms mediating its practice.

Also related to the first set of questions is the entire Indian debate on secularism and modernity. I will not go into that debate here, but suffice it to note that so far it has been framed in terms of the state/community and tradition/modernity dichotomies. While the Indian debate provides rich insights into the questions at issue, it remains caught within its own terms. So for instance, the entire body of writings deals with secularism (and modernity) being colonial impositions and therefore state-centric – for critics and supprters alike. The question then really hinges on the nature of colonial interventions in Indian society. Many critics of secularism would argue that the fact of colonial imposition should alert us to its inherent limitations, while many secularists have been arguing that as the colonial state merely built on processes (and resources) within precolonial society, it did not really introduce a fundamental rupture. I shall merely point out here that there was at least one more route through which the secular-modern imaginary entered societies like India’s: this was the route of marxism which had neither the burden of the state nor the colonial legacy to shoulder and which should therefore have made it different in its approach form that other secualrism. As it happens, the fate of left-secularism and state-secularism actually converged as the going became tough. This, I will argue, had something to do with the profound rupture – an epistemic rupture – introduced by the canonized versions of marxism.

There is one more problem that lies somewhere between the first and the second. Marxism travelled eastwards through the agency of the Comintern – the codified canon embodied – or through its constituent “sections” like the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), in the case of countries like India. There is therefore, a complicated dynamic in the way the first problem is itself mediated by the second circumstance. One of the problems of “applying theory” in this fashion is that not merely the cultural but also the politico-historical context and specificity of the countries where the “application” is intended gets ignored. What happens if the application is undertaken through the mediation of a highly centralized and rigid structure like the Comintern, therefore, will form a part of the following discussion.


On the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of The Communist Manifesto, there is one fundamental question that needs to be asked. Let us pose the question through the words of a ‘Tricontinental marxist’. Anouar Abdel-malek refers to a book by Argentine historian Gustavo Beyhaut concerning the problem of race in Latin America, which contains ‘a number of interesting references to Engels among others’. He refers to a series of articles published by Engels in 1848 and 1849 where he discusses the war of 1847 between the United States and Mexico. “He refers quite unambiguously , to the positive character of American expansion in Mexico, in so far as it represents the expansion of an advanced civilization…This could be extended even, let us say, to cover Vietnam a century later.”(Abdel-Malek 1981: 81-82)

Abdel-Malek’s ironic remark pointing to the fact that a century later the same could under no circumstances be extended to Vietnam says something about the profound change, the radical alteration of the terms of discourse, that had already taken place in marxism during the intervening century. Was this simply because the nature of capitalism’s expansion underwent a qualitative change with the appearance of imperialism? Or was it the case that with the appearance of Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, the basis was laid for the complete transformation of marxist discourse? There are any number of quotations that can be marshalled from the writings of the founders of marxism and Abdel-Malek has furnished some of them to show how nineteenth century marxism shared a common ground with Orientalist discourse – in fact was largely located within it. What is relatively uninvestigated is the transformation referred to above.

We know the famous (?) passages from the The Communist Manifesto (1848) where it was proclaimed that the subjection of the villages to the rule of the bourgeoisie ‘rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life’. “Just as it made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on the nations of bourgeois, the East on the West” (Marx and Engels 1982: 39).

The terms ‘rural population’, ‘country’ ‘barbaric and semi-barbaric countries’ and the ‘East’ are all analogous categories – repositories of idiocy (the lack of Reason?), embodiments of a past that was unproblematically and unadulteratedly ‘barbaric’. Since then, things have changed significantly, and today, if at all marxism survives anywhere, it is in these ‘Three Continents’. Its long march has traversed not merely one and a half centuries, it has moved from the West where it was born, to the East which it saw as the habitat of the barbarians and the irrational, and where it found its most enduring residence.

If in the 2000s, the only hope of all shades of marxists resides in the mountains of Chiapas or the indigeous coca growing peasantry of Bolivia or the peasant base of the Nepal Maoists, I shall suggest once again taking the cue from Abdel-Malek, that what happened in this period to marxist theory, crucially, was the displacement of the historical/economic determinist problematic and the centrality acquired by the “specificity of the political”. If the celebratory tone of the Manifesto­ was predicated upon the “higher technological and cultural/civilizational levels” of capitalism (that made it the “unconscious tool of history”), the Leninist-Maoist moment of marxism’s development privileged the political – the revolutionary potential of the oppressed peoples and the peasantry of the colonial world and, in its later form, of the ‘Third World’. There are major tensions on this point in the writings of Lenin, whose initial faith rested on the West and subsequent to the October revolution, specifically on the European proletariat which would be the standard-bearer of world revolution.

The Maoist moment, on the other hand, in the enunciation of the contradiction between “national liberation struggles and imperialism” as the central and focal contradiction of the epoch, (at the time of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution), represents the complete displacement of the economistic problematic. The fact that the Chinese people were “poor and blank” became the virtue, the source of their revolutionary energy. The subsequent, completely bizarre form in which this expressed itself in the so-called Three-Worlds Theory, also represents to an extent the extension of the same dynamic – though that has a lot to do with the specific nature of power-struggle within China and externally, with China’s battle for supremacy within the international communist movement with the Soviet Union. The populism of the postulate of the “convergence of interests of the USA and the USSR” was probably meant to rally the movements in the Three Continents with pure rhetoric, unable as China was to compete with the USSR in supplying arms to them. That should not however, detract us from assessing the theoretical significance of that rhetoric. Nor need that lead us to any concession in assessing the disaster that was the Cultural Revolution.


In 1848, when the Manifesto was published, the West was the centre of the world and the world revolution, and the East figured in the document – as in many other pronouncements of the founders of marxism – as a mere remnant of the past. I have already quoted some of the relevant passages above. Not only are they steeped in Orientalist common sense, they are also fully in line with the metaphor of darkness and light that is the central organizing principle of the Enlightenment. I have however, quoted these passages not to say that Marx was an Orientalist or racist. The point is precisely the reverse: Even for a revolutionary like Marx, it was not possible to apprehend these forms/formations by stepping outside the discursive horizon of his times. What were different societies, different cultural configurations located outside the physical space of the Enlightenment, became transformed and constituted as temporally prior – as relics of the past whose dissolution had to be welcomed as they represented backwardness. The East was backward because of its superstitious beliefs in religion, magic, sorcery and the like; never mind if mathematics, print technology and gun powder – the three major powers of modernity and colonialism were discovered/ invented in the East. It had to wait for the West to civilize it, to bring it to light.

[Andre Gunder Frank had since responded to this argument quite forcefully by claiming that Marx, far from simply being limited by the discursive horizon of his times, is in fact constitutive of that moment in Western thought that relegated the Orient to its marginal position.]

Fernando Claudin (1975) has, in his studied and extremely well documented account of the Communist movement, pointed to the degeneration of the marxist doctrine under Stalin. He has shown how, in country after country, it was the needs of the Soviet state and Stalin, that were responsible for turning the defense of marxism and the internal revolutionary struggles into a subordinate position to the defense of the Centre of World Revolution. This centre, according to him was once the Comintern that had already become the instrument of Soviet foreign policy interests but the problem was that even that entailed some mediatory forms like consultations with leaders of some of the important parties, particularly those who were represented in the Executive Committee of the Comintern (ECCI). Claudin argues convincingly that it was the need to do away with these minimum impediments to the complete annexation of the communist movements in different countries to Soviet interests that led to the Comintern’s dissolution and its replacement by the Soviet state as the new Centre.

In the history of the Comintern, he shows how the problematic category of the “East” appeared as a crucial one through successive struggles within. He shows that Lenin himself was till as late as 1912, a European at heart. In his article on the “Awakening of Asia”, written in the wake of Sun Yatsen’s revolution in China, Lenin wrote welcoming the revolution:

“Does that mean…that the materialist West has hopelessly decayed and that the light shines only from the mystic, religious East? No, quite the opposite. It means that the East has definitely taken the Western path, that new hundreds of millions of people will from now on share in the struggle for the ideals which the West has already worked out for itself” (Claudin: 50).

There is a long history to the way in which Lenin came to reappraise the situation and theorize the rise of imperialism, especially after the revolution and the formation of the Comintern, when he actually had to deal with the question of the “backward nationalities” within Soviet Union and in the world at large. We need not recount that history here. However some critical moments need to be revisited. Claudin’s account clearly maps the changes in the attitude of the Comintern. He claims that the First Congress almost completely ignored the question of the colonies and

“expressed very clearly the traditional ideas that were strongly rooted in the minds of the marxists: ‘The emancipation of the colonies is possible only in conjunction with the emancipation of the metropolitan working class. The workers and peasants not only of Annam, Algiers and Bengal, but also of Persia and Armenia, will gain the opportunity of independent existence only when the workers of England and France have overthrown Lloyd George and Clemenceau…’ ”(Caludin 246)

Claudin argues that three things happened between the First and the Second Congresses that put the “national and colonial question” on the agenda. First, the ebbing of the proletarian revolutionary tide in the West. Second the upsurge in the colonies and Third, the sharp rise of the national and colonial question inside the Soviet Union (Claudin: 246).

The Second Congress, which was attended by many delegates from the colonies, saw the almost complete reversal of the above position in the stand taken by these representatives like M.N.Roy. Claudin quotes the report of the Congress Commission on the National and Colonial Question, which said that “Comrade Roy defends the idea that the fate of the revolutionary movement in Europe depends entirely on the course of the revolution in the East” (Caludin: 247). Roy was, of course, basing his argument on the idea that as long as the imperialist powers continued to extract super-profits from the colonies they would never enter into a terminal crisis of capitalism. Lenin countered Roy by referring to the fact that “(I)n spite of the fact that the proletariat in India numbers five million and there are 37 million landless peasants, the Indian communists have not succeeded in creating a communist party…This fact alone shows that Com. Roy’s views are to a large extent unfounded.”(Caludin: 248). Clearly Lenin was hitting below the belt by putting forward this entirely non-theoretical argument. This fact really showed nothing so far as the question at issue was concerned.

The Third Congress, held a year later, completely bypassed the issue due to certain strategic requirements of the USSR. I will not go inot the details of these requirements but suffice it to note that Roy had to protest against it while making his report on India, where the mass movement was reaching unprecedented heights. I quote: “I have been allowed five minutes for my report. As this theme cannot be dealt with adequately even in an hour, I wish to employ these five minutes for an energetic protest.” He went on to remark that the way in which the Eastern question has been dealt with at this Congress is purely opportunist and is worthy rather of a Congress of the Second International” (Caludin: 249). In the Fifth Congress, the issue was raised forcefully by the Japanese Communist Party delegate Sen Katayama and Ho Chi Minh (then Nguyen Ai Quoc).

It is interesting in this context, to note that at the Fourth Congress, Tan Malaka of the Indonesian CP narrated the story of the CP’s collaboration with an oraganization called the Sarekat Islam. He said:

“…We collaborate with the Islamists…Between 1912 and 1916, this union had one million members, perhaps it had three or even four million. It was a very large proletarian union which sprang up spontaneously and was very revolutionary. Until 1920 we collaborated with this union…In 1921 we succeeded in making Sarekat Islam adopt our programme and it went into the villages agitating for control of production and for the watchword: ‘All power to the poor peasants and to the proletariat. However, a split occurred in 1921, owing to the tactless criticism of the leaders of the Sarekat Islam. The government and its agents made use of this split, and also of the decisions of the Second Congress of the Comintern, to fight against Pan-Islamism.”

In the midst of this narration Marchlewski, who was at the Chair, interrupted: “Your time is up”. To this Malaka replied, “I have come from India, it took me forty days to come here” and continued amidst applause, to express what can only be described as the most crucial existential crisis of a communist of the colonial world: “they (the Sarekat Islamists) are with us ‘with their stomach’ (to use a popular expression) but with their hearts they remain with the Sarekat Islam – with their heaven which we cannot give them.”(Claudin: note 87, ch, 4))

If this was the situation in the colonies in the rest of the world, the situation inside the USSR was no different – in fact, it was more complicated. Claudin writes of the Muslim peoples of Central Asia: “Tsarist colonization had taken in these regions…an ‘Algerian’ form: settlement by Russian colonists [peasants and also some workers], who inevitably acqired a colonialist mentality. When Bolshevik power was established in the heartland of Russia, this Russian minority…at once became ‘Soviet’ and from its ranks were recruited many of the ‘Bolsheviks’ who were to take over the leading functions in the new institutions.” In 1920, Lenin sent one of his closest collaborators, Safarov, to study the problem and Claudin remarks that Safarov was to write some years later that,

“It was inevitable that the Russian revolution should have a colonialist character in Turkestan. The Turkestani working class, numerically small, had neither leader, programme, party nor revolutionary tradition…Under Tsarist colonialism, it was the privilege of the Russians to belong to the industrial proletariat. For this reason, the dictatorship of the proletariat took on a typically colonialist character.” (Caludin: 256-7)

At the famous Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, Narbutabekov from Turkestan made the following impassioned plea:

“We…have faith in our…leaders of the world proletariat – comrades Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev and others, but all the same we must state…what we want, and the voice of the Muslim workers and the peoples of the East must be heard…Everyone knows that the East is utterly different from the West and its interests are different – thus, rigid application of the ideas of Communism will meet with resistance in the East…They [the leaders] should come and see for themselves what is happening in our country, what exactly the local authorities, whose policies drive the working masses away from the Soviet power, are up to…(I)n shedding our blood on the Turkestan fronts against the enemies of Soviet power, we bound up our lives closely with the working masses of the whole of Russia and the accusations of chauvinist tendencies made against Turkestani leaders must be dropped…I tell you comrades, that our Turkestani masses have to fight on two fronts. On the one hand, against the evil mullahs at home, and on the other against the narrow nationalist inclinations of local Europeans.”(Caludin: note 85, ch.4)

Notice the use of terms like “our country” and “local Europeans”. Notice also the fact that already the complexity of conflict between local cultures and high theory was being played out – the latter talking the language of universalism while the former were asserting their ineradicable difference. In fact, Narbutaketov’s speech shows how their idea of universalism was predicated precisely on the recognition of difference – otherwise the fear was that in the name of universalism, local European nationalism would ride roughshod over them. Hence the fight on two fronts. Between him and Tan Malaka, we see the really repressed voices of marxism, the traces of which we would find difficult to retrieve. The long history of marxism’s sojourn in the East in fact, can be seen as one of continuous struggle between these two imperatives, between the dictates of a theory which talked an abstract language but was steeped in European traditions and therefore dismissive of other traditions and, the imperatives of making their own revolution which could not afford to adopt an instrumentalist attitude, let alone be self-deprecatory about their own cultures.

Most of the time however, as Abdel-Malek rightly observes, the communists from the colonies “were less concerned to expound theses than to say: we exist.”(Abdel-Malek: 86). To some extent, Roy did try to theorize but then, in his theoretical predelictions he was more European than most other colonial marxists. His theorizations therefore, were mainly confined to asserting the importance of the Eastern question and to demonstrate that it could not be made politically subordinate to the tasks of the communists in the West. Of all the Tricontinental marxists, it was Mao Tsetung who went furthest in his effort to theorize though, as we shall see these efforts too fell far short of the requirements. It may be useful then to look at some of his forays into theory.


Three concepts seem to be of crucial importance to Mao Tsetung’s attempt at dealing with the application of marxism’s predominantly European theoretical paraphernalia and the rigid imposition of the Comintern’s code. First, the “law of uneven development” as an absolute law. “Nothing in the world develops absolutely evenly”, he proclaims (Mao 1977a: 336). Through this assertion, Mao almost instinctively, subverts the metaphysical positivist desire of finding laws and regularities governing human societies – much of which baggage marxism had itself inherited through the Second and the Third Internationals. Second, he makes what is his central conceptual move through his enunciation of the “particularity and universality of contradiction.” The universality of the contradiction is simply the idea that “contradiction exists in the development of all things”; that “it is precisely in the particularity of the contradiction that the universality resides.” (Mao 1977a: 316). Universality, says Mao, is easier to understand because “it has been widely recognized” since Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, but “the particularity of contradiction is still not clearly understood by many comrades, especially the dogmatists.”(Mao 1977a: 315-6).

Notice here the second major subversion: If universality of contradiction was to a certain marxism, the Universal appearing, a la a certain marxist Hegel, in each particular and each particular representing a mere moment of the Universal, Mao in one stroke, completely reverses its meaning. The particular now becomes the only way in which the Universal can appear. This is Mao’s famous law of contradiction. This notion is the second universal truth. The two statements together constitute what Mao calls “the universal truths” of Marxism, thus holding on the idea in words but interpreting it in a way that practically denies its universality. In his rendering then, this is universality, but one which has no attribute of its own; it acquires everywhere the attributes of the particularity. That is why Mao can ask: “Why is it that the Chinese revolution can avoid a capitalist future and be directly linked with socialism, without taking the old historical road of Western countries…?” and answer: “The sole reason is the concrete conditions of the time.”(Mao 1977a: 341).

By making these moves Mao is further able to complicate notions of subjectivity and agency handed down by the Internationals. Contradictions exist, according to him, not only between the exploiters and the exploited, but equally importantly, “among the people”. In the concrete conditions of China, he refers to “contradictions within the working class, contradictions within the peasantry, the contradictions within the intelligentsia, the contradictions between the working class and the peasantry” etc. (Mao 1977b: 385).

It is true that Mao never theoretically follows through and works out the ideas of subjectivity and agency in the light of these formulations but all through his practice we can see that he is acutely aware of the implications of the above. It is easy to see that, put this way, simplistic notions like a “class-in-itself” turning into a “class-for-itself” – another specifically 19th century Europeanism – become impossible to conceive. For, having already posited the contradiction within the class, it is neither possible to simply derive class consciousness from class position, nor think of a single unified will of a class – expressed through a single party. Needless to say, attributing a telos of History to that is well-nigh impossible.

In case we had any doubts, Mao goes further. True, he does put “contradictions among the people” in the category of “nonantagonistic contradictions” as opposed to “antagonistic” ones among the exploiters and the exploited. Yet, these are not fixed categories which can only be resolved in one particular way, consonant with the larger telos. So he argues that one can easily turn into the other. “(T)his contradiction between the two classes (the national bourgeoisie and the working class), if properly handled can be transformed into a nonantagonistic one and be resolved by peaceful methods.” (Mao 1977b: 386). On the other hand, “(I)n ordinary circumstances, contradictions among the people are not antagonistic…but if they are not handled properly…antagonism may arise.”(Ibid: 391).

The phrase “if handled properly” then leads us to the third concept of Mao’s: politics in command. Nothing but the limiting conditions are provided by the economy and the logic of production. The rest depends upon politics, upon how forces are rallied, how alliances are struck, how struggles are conducted and what organizational forms mediate each of these.

We must however, be cautious while understanding the use to which Mao puts these concepts. He wanted to puncture the rigidly structured and codified canon of the Comintern and create the space for his own activity. The political task of accomplishing the Chinese revolution demanded a partial rejection of that canon but in the balance of world forces then existing he could not afford to become another Tito – excommunicated by the communist world. It was to create this space that the idea of a particularity that not just expressed the essence of the Universal but was an entity in its own right, becme important. The theoretical/philosophical task that followed from Mao’s initiative, at once bolder and more conservative than Lenin’s, was never undertaken, either by him or by his successors. In many ways therefore, Mao remained a believer in “the universal truths of Marxism-Leninism” even though he often enough chose to define them in the above manner. Today, we surely can read these conceptual moves made by him in a more radical way.

This caution is necessary in order to understand that because the theoretical/philosophical implications were never followed through into an alternative theorization of the specificities of the colonial world/East, marxism even its Maoist incarnation, remained within the larger framework of post-Enlightenment, often positivist, thought. It was therefore easy for it to slip back into the canon and in the case of China, into the high modernist paradigm that rules it in the post-Mao phase.

It is important therefore to underline here that to create a space for a different practice and an alternative theorization is no substitute for an alternative theory. In order to accomplish that latter task, a further step is required: It is not enough to say that “our history” is different from theirs; we must move towards a reconstruction of this history on its own terms. However, that is not our concern in the present essay, but I wish to state here that when I say “on its own terms” it is not once again a search for the pristine, precolonial histories that I am suggesting. Nor am I suggesting that all responses of the nationalist leaders and intelligentsia to colonial modernity that were based on some sort of dialogue with it, were a priori illegitimate. The search, on the contrary, must be based on an effort to understand why they related to colonialism in the way that they did.


In this section I will briefly look at the formative history of the Indian communist movement, which presents an interesting counterpoint to the Chinese case, for it is a movement that remains essentially hegemonized by the Comintern and the classical paradigm. Yet, in a peculiar way Indian communism too reveals the existential angst of other colonial communists.

It needs to be underlined that by the time marxism came to India, it had already undergone its first major metamorphosis. To the hundreds of youth who joined the communist movement in the country in the second and third decades of this century, marxism was an anti-imperialist doctrine of liberation from colonialism. That much was already self-evident. Its hostility to colonialism was a logical extension of it hostility to capitalism as such. On this issue Eastern marxism did not seem to suffer from any internal contradiction. Many of the youth who felt attracted towards the communist movement were nationalists to begin with, driven by a passion for a new, free India. Others were believers in Islam and anti-British, who wanted to fight for the Khilafat. For many of them though, their religiosity does not seem to have been articulated with their nationalism. These are points that are often overlooked when, all too easily the communists today are accused of having been the carriers of an alienated, Western oriented way of thinking. There seem to be many more layers of complication than are visible at first sight, as we shall see later. There was certainly something internal to communism too, that happened in later years that also transformed Indian communism to its subsequent alienated form.

The first generation of Muslim youth who went and joined M.N. Roy and became the co-founders of the communist party in Tahskent, were in fact muhajirs – self-exiled or on hijrat. Roy writes of them that “they were not even nationalists”. He then goes on to add:

“My preliminary efforts with the educated minority produced greater results than I expected and wanted. Most of them transferred their fanatical allegiance from Islam to Communism(emphasis added). I had not spoken to them at all about Communism. I had only told them that driving the British out of India would be no revolution, if it was succeeded by replacing foreign exploiters by native ones. I had to explain the social significance of a revolution: that, to be worthwhile, a revolution should liberate the toiling masses of India from their present economic position. Instinctively idealists, they readily agreed with my opinion and jumped to the conclusion that if the revolution had to liberate the toiling masses, it would have to be a Communist revolution.”(Roy 1984: 464).

Note the significant expession here: The mohajirs “transferred their fanatical allegiance to communism”. Let us just dwell on this for a moment. Their being idealist does not fully explain their conversion. For we know that religion was a central concern to the Muslim youth who joined the Khilafat movement. Could it be that to these early youth, conversion to communism did not stand in contradiction to their religion? Could it be then that they saw in communism, primarily a political imaginary that did not demand a subordination of their spiritual world to the political? The idea of a communist revolution was in the air; it was there already in the stories that were told in hushed tones, that narrated how the hated landowners and rulers had been overthrown in Russia, led by a larger-than-life messiah called Lenin. Only further scholarship can reveal the extent to which the story of the revolution was acquiring a mythological character. One thing seems certain: the stories of these early years did not yet reveal communism to be a godless, irreligious creed. And for the believers of Islam, to whom the world – the Creation – was greater than any nation, the idea of a revolution that sought to transcend national boundaries may have really seemed very attractive. How else do we make sense of the wholesale transfer of allegiance that Roy talks of? The story of Tan Malaka, of the initial collaboration between the Sarekat Islam and the communists, the tale of Narbutabekov – all of them point in the direction of a conclusion that at least in the early years, conversion to communism did not involve anything more than the adoption of a new political vision of how to recast the world. It certainly did not entail the epistemological rupture, the abandonment of old ways of making sense of the world and th adoption of the standpoint of High Rationalism.

If this was the frame of mind of the muhajir-turned-communists, those at home were not from “Western educated elite” either. Muzaffar Ahmed, one of the founders of the CPI at home, has described his own situation in his pre-communist days, in his autobiography:

“I would be suppressing the truth if I were to say that I was never involved in anything communal. I used to participate in meetings and organizations raising the specific demands of Muslims. I was also a religious Muslim at that time. Even if I did not offer namaz five times a day, I did fast throughout the entire month of Ramzan.” (Ahmed 1987: 7).

In fact, Muzaffar Ahmed further explains that later, during the 1920s, given his “the state of mind… and the thrill that was associated with the terrorist movement” it was not entirely impossible that he joined a terrorist revolutionary group.

“But there were major hurdles in the way. The terrorist revolutionaries drew their inspiration from Bankimchandra’s Anandamath. This book was full of communal hatred from the beginning to the end. Its basic mantra was the song Bandemataram… How could a monotheistic Islamic youth recite this mantra?”(Ahmed 1987: 9).

Ahmed says this even as he records his deepest respect for the terrorists (this is the term he consciously uses). Notice here that even though the monotheistic Muslim youth found it difficult to chant the Hindu mantra, he did eventually become a communist subsequently – Islam did not stand in the way. I suspect that for leaders and political activists like him, communism would have been the first station in the route to Rationalism and atheism.

Saroj Mukherjee, one of the stalwarts of the Bengal communists who joined the CPI in the thirties, also begins his autobiography with the concerns that animated some of the youth who joined the communist movement at that time.

“We wanted the freedom of the country. We wanted to usher in an arrangement wherein the people could live in happiness after driving out the British rulers. In what misery do the workers, peasants, the people of the villages and industrial areas live! We wanted an end to that state of affairs and to build a happy and prosperous country…This was the thought that we were obsessed with.” (Mukhopadhyay 1985: 7).

Clearly, the concerns that brought these youth of diverse persuasions to the communist movement were similar. They were nationalists in a different way – in the sense that they wanted the happiness of the people who constituted the majority of the “nation”, namely the poor, toilng people. Their nationalism had nothing to with any prior “Indian essence”. And a precondition to this happiness was the freedom from foreign rule. Alternatively, they were religiousy inclined “internationalists” – the Khilafatists – who once again wanted the “revolution of the toiling masses” and therefore managed to free themselves of the narrow religious concerns for the sake of the larger cause. In other words, to them also, their Islamic allegiance presented no barrier in the transition to communism.

How do we understand this transformation – an epistemological leap – from nationalism/religiosity to communism? I would suggest that in the early years, the transition from nationalism and religion did not involve any rupture. The rupture is located precisely in the transition from communism to Rationalism. As a political imaginary, communism provided the buffer between two worlds; as a self-proclaimed weltanschauung, it became the agent of High Reason and of the ideology of Progress. For the moment I shall use ‘communism’ (with lower case c) to denote the former and ‘Communism’ (with capital C) to denote the philosophy.

I do not think that the straightforward dichotomy of tradition/modernity is very helpful here. For, as late as the turn of the twentieth century, colonial modernity was already the condition of existence and everything, nationalism and religion included, was marked by its presence. There was no longer any “innocent precolonial-self” in existence any more. And yet there is a crucial leap involved here. The communist (that is, pre-Communist) ideas of nationalism and religiosity were deeply engaged in a dialogue with tradition and the past. In a manner of speaking, they represented attempts to cope with colonial modernity from within the ground of a tradition that was already ineradicably lodged within it and therefore conditioned by it. The rupture or leap to Communism meant a closure of that dialogue – a move to a ground that was firmly located within the epistemological world of Western, post-Enlightenment rationalism. The communists in India, probably, did not just encounter the shift in the Comintern’s position that Tan Malaka had experienced with all his being. To them the exciting story of the workers’ revolution in Russia presented a picture that was very different from the one that the “backward peoples” of Turkestan and Soviet Central Asia were beginning to experience. The meaning of the revolution was differently felt within and without. I am not suggesting that to the people of Soviet Central Asia the revolution brought only disaster. Far from it. I am only suggesting that the different story that was beginning to unfold there was at that time not accessible to those who later became communists in India. To them the dream of a happy, prosperous and exploitation-free nation was at hand and the USSR showed them the way to it. Since the question of Pan-Islamism had already been “resolved” by the comintern, to the Indian communists it – and the religious question in general – was already handed down as received wisdom, unlike Malaka, for whom it remained an open question having the backing of a different experience. The leap for the Indian communists therefore, was one into this worldview – not the one being defended by Malaka or Narbutabekov. How this leap became possible is a matter of further research and investigation.

I will tentatively suggest that a part of the explanation may be rooted in the ontological condition of the colonial subject – a condition shaped by a colonial modernity that was both oppressor as well as the mirror that revealed to him/her the pathologies of the precolonial past. It is within that general ontological condition that we can situate the immense appeal of a modern emancipatory project like socialism or communism which simultaneously declared its hostility to colonialism/imperialism and to the oppressions of the past. It is probably within this larger canvas that the transition to the comintern-led Communism becomes possible, even though the actualization of that possibility is a more complex process.

According to Tunisian writer Albert Memmi (1965), the constitution of colonial subjectivity is marked by (a) the social and historical mutiliation of the colonized and (b) what I will call after him, her cultural schizophrenia. He delineates two moments of the constitution of this subject, when he talks of two historically possible ways of realizing this subjectivity. The first moment of this constitution is mimetic, for the colonized native here mimics and emulates the colonial master. For Memmi, of course, the mimicry is of a different kind, taking place as it does in the violent context of the assimilation of colonized populations under French colonialism. This may also happen, I will suggest, by way of the colonized subject defining her political project of emancipation in terms of the larger theoretical and epistemological criteria of the West, in terms of its philosophy and its achievements as the embodiment of progress and modernity – what Partha Chatterjee has called the Thematic of nationalism. It may also happen in a second, more subtle way of the native/colonized subject recasting her/his own religious/spiritual apparatus in order to summon it to provide the ethical and therefore epistemic, justifications for redefinitions of Selfhood and enable it to play a new political role.

The second moment of this constitution is actually already beginning to emerge in the above description – that of the assertion of their difference. For, this could never be based on the complete rejection of the Self. Even the former category of responses, represented by the modernists who celebrated the idea of the eventual triumph of Reason and Science, were responses from the same ground as that of those who seemed to entirely reject the West. What attracted them to ideas of socialism/liberalism was the idea of a modern India that was not merely politically independent but also free of social oppression. Where the two differed and parted ways was the way in which they assessed the strengths of the colonial power and what they considered crucial to their sense of Selfhood – in other words, what they considered the indispensable and the relatively discardable aspects of their tradition. For those who privileged the West’s achievements in material, scientific and modern terms, the road to salvation lay to a large extent, in the first option pointed out by Memmi. The communists clearly, would fall in this category. On the other hand, those who thought that the West’s political and armed might was the key to its strength, also sought to masculinize and militarize their own “religion” (like a Vivekananda or in a different way, a Savarkar or a Golwalkar), while holding on to the notion that it was still spiritually superior to the Europeans. The reasons why different social groups and sections made different choices have deeper historical reasons, which we can hardly go into here. Suffice it to note that there was no essential Indian Self and different people understood their “Indianness” in radically different ways. One of the key mediating factors was the attitude the players held towards the violence and oppression of the old order and the stake each of them had in precolonial social arrangements. The caste oppression of the brahminical order for instance, ensured that the entire range of backward caste and dalit leaders did not take the second option. To them the old order was an unmitigated evil that had to go. This circumstance itself was what made all the difference. In Europe and the West, the ideas of the philosophes of the Enlightenment were rooted in the struggles within their respective societies and so the choice was a more straightforward one between the old and the new. In India and much of the colonial world, the rejections of past violences went along with the need to redefine the Self in relation to a set of new ideas that were tied to the West that was actually colonizing it.

In the context of Indian communism, it is this that provides the key link. The assertion of the universal condition – “All men [without markers] are born free and equal”- becomes the basis for challenging the indigenists/revivalists who claim a special status in the name of their difference and who seem to be wanting the freedom to revive a hated past. The transition from communism to Communism takes place in this context. It may be worthwhile to study the specific contexts in which the early communists, much like the early social reformers and the leaders of the “backward classes”, found a more secure ally in the modern liberal/socialist doctrines coming from the west.

What further complicated the situation in the context of the Indian communist movement was that it became totally unreflexive by virtue of its complete dependence on the Comintern and the Soviet Union, not merely for its ideological-theoretical nourishment but also its organizational coordination. The problem, it seems, is not where a particular idea is born but whether it has the capability to adapt to different conditions which, I have been arguing so far, was the case with marxism but which was precisely the casualty of its canonization.

Muzaffar Ahmed narrates how the work of the CPI began at four different places – Calcutta, Madras, Bombay and Lahore – in the country around the same time. “It was not as if the initiators met and decided to start work…In each place it started independently. They did not even know each other”. He goes on to explain how in these circumstances, and given the large distances within India, each of these four groups maintained separate/independent contact with the Comintern (Ahmed 1987: 62).

Symptomatic of the control of the Comintern over the Indian Communist Party was the first Manifesto of the Party – titled “Manifesto to The Delegates of the XXXVI Indian National Congress”. The document was written and printed in Moscow by M.N. Roy and approved by Lenin and Stalin. It is interesting that the people who drafted and approved the document had no day to day touch with the movement in the country. Mikhail Borodin had gone to Madrid to attend a conference and brought with him a pile of Indian papers for Roy, who the submerged himself in them to eventually produce the document. The Manifesto is full of unsought advice to the Congress. It further displays the most elementary lack of political sense in that it shows no appreciation of the dynamics of political dialogue: why should the delegate to the Congress session take this unasked for bit of advice seriously when they do not even know, let alone trust those who are handing it out? The tone of the advise is often derisive in the extreme. For instance, it says: “Several thousand of noisy, irresponsible students and a number of middle class intellectuals followed by an ignorant mob momentarily incited by fanaticism, cannot be the social basis of the political organ of a nation.”(Reproduced in Ahmed 1987).

On the positive side, the document does try to expose the “freedom first” argument by emphasizing that there can be no genuine freedom without the toiling people and their demands figuring centrally in the movement. But then the document proceeds:

“How can the Congress expect to arouse lasting popular enthusiasm in the name of the Khilafat and by demanding the revision of the treaty of Sivres? The high politics behind such slogans may be easy for the learned intellectuals…but it is beyond the comprehension of the masses of the Indian people who have been steeped in ignorance not only by the foreign ruler, but by our own religious and social institutions…Their consciousness must be aroused first of all. They must know what they are fighting for”.

In the event, of course, it was clear what the masses understood and what they did not, who in their perception, was talking “high politics” and who was not? The document is therefore, more important because it completely failed to understand the meaning of what it called “high politics” and “abstract idealism”. For instance, it says:

“The programme of the Congress has to be denuded of all sentimental trimmings; it has to be dragged down from the height of abstract idealism; it must talk of the things indispensable for mortal life of the common human being…the object for which the Indian people will fight should not be looked for somewhere in the unknown regions of Mesopotamia or Arabia or Constantinople…”.

Recall Malaka’s lament that “with their hearts they remain with the Sarekat Islam – with their heaven which we cannot give them”. The inability to understand the meaning of the peoples’ heaven, the construal of all spirituality/religiosity as ignorance is centrally linked to the epistemological leap into the world of post-enlightenment rationalism. I must emphasize that I am not talking of communists not being religious but simply of being unable to understand the world of those who are religious. In other words, I am talking of the closure, the diremption entailed in this leap. If they could not understand the religious mind, nor could they understand the force of nationalism. I will not go into the details of that aspect as that has been written about in fair amount of detail. It is also idle to argue about whether involving the Khilafat sentiment was a correct or an incorrect move on Gandhi’s part. Surely its correctness or otherwise cannot be judged on the basis of purported outcomes. In any case, what I am underlining is the crossing of a particular epistemological threshold on the part of the communists.

That the influence of the Comintern was not simply ideological, made matters worse. The minimum autonomy that the Indian communists displayed was also repeatedly undermined. Muzaffar Ahmed, a devoted follower of the Comintern line narrates an incident which is illustrative. In a conference held in 1926, one of the items on the agenda was the change in name of the Labour Swaraj Party. In his words: “ It was decided in the deliberations of the conference that the name of the Labour Swaraj Party would be changed to ‘The Bengal Peasants’ and Workers’ Party’. Some of us present in the Krishnanagar Conference did not however, raise the issue that as a class the workers’ name should come first. There would have been no use raising the issue before the praja and krishak [tenant and peasant] representatives. We said that in the tradition of usage of words in English, Workers’ should come first, as there are less letters in this word….Our argument was not accepted by a majority of the delegates.” (Ahmed 1987: 340). The frivolity of the argument reveals the pathetic state of mind in which this proposal may have been put forward. In the third conference of the PWP of Bengal, held in Bhatpara in March 1928, the Communists managed to get the English name of the party changed to Workers’ and Peasants’ Party but the Bengali name remained what it was. (Ahmed 1987: 348).

There can be no other explanation for this desperate behaviour except fear – the fear of ridicule and disciplinary action by the Comintern. If Ahmed himself did not feel compelled to press for a change of name at the Krishnanagar conference because it would not have cut ice with the peasant delegates, what else was the desperation about? Marxist orthodoxy decreed that there could be only one party to a class. Only the communist party could represent the working class and only one class could be represented by any party. What then was this business of two-class parties? The mystery is uncovered many many years later, in 1960, when Muzaffar Ahmed writes to Clemens Palme Dutt, through his brother, Rajni Palme Dutt to seek some clarification regarding the expulsion of M.N. Roy from the Comintern. “As regards Roy’s expulsion…” replies C.P. Dutt, “(B)y the end of 1927, Roy had already come under heavy criticism for his policy in China…Then came his discrediting in connection with India. Apart from the decolonization theory, he was attacked, firstly because he had given exxagerated reports about the strength of the Communist Party of India and his influence there and, secondly, because he was attempting to build a Workers and Peasants Party as a kind of alternative to the Communist Party…Roy answered the criticism that it was wrong to form a political party on a 2-class basis by saying that what was required in India was not merely a 2-class party but a multi-class party.” (Ahmed 1987: 402).

Characteristically, Ahmed, even while publishing this damning letter refused to draw the conclusion that he ought to have in his memoirs. After all, it is abundantly clear from his accounts that the formation of the PWPs and the WPPs were no conspiracies hatched by Roy; all of them, including Ahmed believed in the need for forming them and in my view, rightly so. The subsequent dissolution of the WPPs can now be seen in perspective. It may not be entirely out of place to mention that with the accession to power by Hitler and the turn in the Comintern’s line in 1935, in its Seventh Congress, when the worldwide tactical shift was towards formation of United Fronts, Indian communists were to see sermonizing in a very different direction. The well-known “Dutt-Bradley Thesis” authored by R. P. Dutt and Ben Bradley of the CPGB, directed the formation of a mass anti-imperialist front – in fact of the transformation of the Congress itself into a multi-class party!

The glimpse of the Indian communist movement that we see here gives a diametrically opposite picture from the Chinese one, particularly the phase after the ascent of Mao. The history of the Chinese Communist Party before that phase is also of course replete with instances of sharp struggle against the disastrous attempts to impose the Comintern’s line. The struggle against what was known as the group of twenty-eight Bolsheviks or the “Returned students” [i.e. returned from Moscow] has been officially recognized by the CCP. Mao himself has said on occasion that the CCP could make the Chinese revolution successful by going against the wishes of Stalin.

What the above discussion highlights then is something more than mere centralization of command within the Comintern. The suppression of local initiative goes hand in hand with the hard choice that the communists of the colonial world were presented with: a choice between two epistemological worlds. It was a choice within which is located the final leap of Indian communists. It would however, be an oversimplification to say that force alone was responsible for this transformation. There is an elaborate mythology through which the hegemony of the Comintern is established. This mythology has a peculiarly theological structure where the world is divided between believers and non-believers: “Those who are not with us are against us”. The fear of excommunication is as strong within this world as it is in any other religion. In the event, the canonization of faith has all the other attributes that go with religion: a set of sacred texts, a pantheon of gods, a Papal authority and the mythology that sustains the faith. Reason is finally sublated into its opposite and in a typically Hegelian auhfebung, if there ever was any, a synthesis of the rationalist religion occurs. It is the stranglehold of this mythology to which even Mao submits in the end, when he makes his existential choice of remaining within the fold of believers – his constant fear of becoming another Tito, recurrent in so many of his writings and speeches ensures this choice.


In conclusion, I would like to draw attention to one of the first footnotes of Marx’s doctrine – written by Marx himself and all but erased by his followers. I am referring to Marx’s correspondence with Vera Zasulich – the Russian Narodnik-turned-Marxist. In 1881, Teodor Shanin tells us, Marx spent three weeks agonizing over a reply to Zasulich’s letter, during which he wrote four drafts puzzling over the issue of the Russian peasant communes. He tried to understand the decline of the peasant commune not as an absolute law of history but as a historical contingency. (Shanin 1983: 13-4). Recovered after his death, it was sent by Engels to the Group for the Emancipation of Labour (of which luminaries like Plekhanov and Zasulich were members) for publication. After a long silence of seven months, they replied to Engels saying that they would publish it once they got it translated into Russian. They never did. Finally it was published in 1886, in Vestnik Norodnoi Voli (Vol 5). The only positive response to the letter, the Japanese scholar Haruki Wada informs us, was from among the Populists (Narodniks). They were discovered, according to Wada, in 1911 by D.B. Riazanov who with Bukharin’s help managed to decipher them in 1913. One full decade later they were again discovered accidentally by a Menshevik called B.I. Nikolaevskii and published in 1924. In 1926, Riazanov published them separately.(Shanin: 41-2). Writing as the defender of what was already a canon, Riazanov said that the letter and its drafts represented a decline in Marx’s scholastic capability. (Shanin: 42). Both Wada and Shanin have documented in detail, the turmoil that Marx was undergoing and the small but significant changes he was making in fresh editions of his earlier writings. In the French edition of Capital published in 1875, for instance, he deletes one paragraph on primitive accumulation that says that in different ways, the same process is going on in different countries everywhere. The new passage restricts the scope of his theoretical generalizations to Western Europe. (Shanin: 48-9).

It is this passage from the French edition that Marx quotes from in the letter to Zasulich and remarks: “Hence the ‘historical inevitability’ of this movement is expressly limited to the countries of Western Europe.” (Marx 1977: 576). Following the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War sometime in 1877, Marx wrote to F.A. Sorge:

“This crisis is a new turning point for the history of Europe. Russia…has for a long period been on the brink of revolution. All the factors for this are already present…The revolution this time starts from the East, that same East which we have so far regarded as the invincible support and reserve of counter-revolution”. (Wada in Shanin 1983: 55-6).

In other words, the canonization of Marx deprived later marxists of the most crucial insights that could be had from the way in which he was grappling with “the problem of the East” – for which we had to wait for the Leninist and Maoist moments of reformulation of theory. The critical spirit of Marx that is repeatedly in evidence throughout his life and seen in this dramatic episode, was the first to be killed. In order to preserve the canon and the icon Marx, the critical philosopher had to be killed first. The reconstitution of the communist self began with the (re)construction of Marx.

An earlier version of this essay was published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 9 January 1999, Vol 34, Nos 1&2.


Abdel-Malek, Anouar (1981) Nation and Revolution. Volume 2 of Social Dialecics. The Macmillan Press, London and Basingstoke.

Ahmed, Muzaffar (1981), Amar Jibon O Bharater Communist Party, National Book Agency.

Alam, Javeed (1999), India: Living with Modernity, Oxford University Press, Delhi

Carr`e re d’Encausse, Helene and Stuart Schram (1965) Marxism and Asia, Allen Lane The Penguin Press.

Castoriadis, Cornelius (1987), The Imaginary Institution of Society , Polity Press, UK.

Claudin, Fernando (1975), The Communist Movement: From Comintern to Cominform, in two parts. Monthly Review Press, New York and London

Mao Tsetung (1977a), Selected Works Vol. I, Foreign Languages Press, Peking.

—————–(1977b), Selected Works Vol. V, Foreign Languages Press, Peking

Marx, K. (1973), Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. Vintage Books, New York.

Marx, Karl (1977), Selected Writings, Ed. David McLellan, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich (1982), Selected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Memmi, Albert (1965), The Colonizer and the Colonized, Souvenir Press Ltd.

Mukhopadhyay, Saroj (1985), Bharater Communist Party O Amra, Vol. I, National Book Agency.

Roy, M. N. (1984), Memoirs, Ajanta Publications, India.

Shanin, Teodor (1983), Late Marx and the Russian Road – Marx and ‘the Peripheries of Capitalism’ Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

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  1. sordidday says:

    Reblogged this on sordidday.

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