Literature and the Communist Movement in India
Having a general understanding of the communist movement in India is incredibly important in fully comprehending and appreciating several postcolonial novels, such as Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. Along with the politics, it is also important to recognize how nationalism, the caste system, and violence played a role in the birth and subsequent failure of the Indian communist movement. Kerala, the province of India discussed in both these novels, is significant because of its long and successful history with communist politics.
The Founding of the Communist Party of India
The Communist Party of India was founded in the 1920s to create an alternative mass movement to the existing Congress anti-imperialist movement. The communist movement grew out of economic causes and targeted the propertied classes whether British or Indian. The “revolt” was not against the colonial government and the ruling Congress Party as much as it was against the capitalist system. However, other communist parties viewed the Communist Party of India, the CPI, as too conservative and ineffective (see Marx and the Idea of Commodity).
Split of the CPI and Formation of the CPI(M)
In 1964 the CPI split and formed a second faction known as the CPI(M)–the Communist Party of India (Marxists). The CPI(M) called for a large scale revolt of workers. These people, mostly members of the lower castes and agricultural workers, were negatively affected by the elites trying to gain national power through capitalism by increasing India’s industrial strength. The other group hurt by capitalism were the landlords and peasants with the breakdown of feudal society.
Problems of Nationalism
After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, the future of India as a nation was hotly debated. In general, there were two camps of thought. One group wanted progress and democracy while the other group felt that cultural and religious issues were most important. Defining Indian nationalist thought required coming to terms with the presence and domination of a foreign power in addition to the formulation of a positive view of India rooted in its cultural, religious and historical traditions.
Problems and Failure of the Communist Movement
The main problem for the communist movement was that no one encouraged the joining of the peasant castes, the landowners, and the middle class proletariat into one large revolutionary group. No real national spirit existed amongst them. Many supporters of the movement knew nothing about Marx and Engels or political theory; they were simply using the communist movement to show their economic frustration. This failure to unite and create a new unified Indian communist identity is what led to the failure of the communist movement. The Sixth Congress of the Communist International said in its thesis on the Revolutionary Movement in Colonies or Semi-Colonies that “[t]he single biggest weakness…is the deplorable state of the political level of the proletariat, its class consciousness, its organization, and its unity with the other toiling masses and particularly the peasantry.”
How Violence Attributed to the Failure of the Communist Movement
The colonial state was prepared to crush any violent opposition to its power. Most importantly, a violent overthrow of colonial rule presupposed a society confronted with undisguised brutality and oppression. Ever since limited constitutionalism was introduced within the colonial framework, social tensions were closely watched and kept under control to some extent – whether by aggravating the opposition by patronizing one section, as was the case concerning Muslim communalists, or by manipulating legislation as in the case of class conflict amongst workers and capitalists, or tenants and landowners (Joshi and Josh 20). Hence, there were plenty of causes for mass movement against the government. The main priority of the communist mass movements should have been unity and getting the issues into the mainstream instead of simply resorting to violence. Gandhi’s method, for example, was to slowly pick apart at the government’s “liberality” and tackle the issues one at a time. This proved to be effective because the colonial state found it more frustrating to battle a forceful yet peaceful movement. Hence, this movement managed to damage the government more effectively than the violent and disorganized methods of the CPI.
David Frossard describes in great detail what makes Kerala an exceptional Indian state. He calls Kerala, a thriving capitalist trade center as well as one of the poorest areas of India, a “bold social experiment” because it is the first ever democratically elected Marxist government. Kerala occupies only 1.2% of India’s land area, yet it has 3.4% of India’s population. Like any socialist system, Kerala spends what little resources it has on services such as health care, food, and basic education – equal for both men and women. Kerala is one of only a few anti-caste systems in India, perhaps because of the strong presence of Islam and Christianity. This lack of strict caste structure could also result from the influence of the Communist Party of India which sought to abolish the caste system. The CPI was unsuccessful in uniting the castes in most of India, hence the failure of the movement, but it was more successful in Kerala.
- Chandhoke, Neera, ed. Understanding the Post-Colonial World. New Dehli: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1994.
- Frossard, David. “Kerala: An Indian Experiment in Social Reform.” 1996-7. Web.
- Griffiths, Sir Percival, C.I.E. Modern India. London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1957.
- Joshi, Shashi, and Bhagwan Josh. Struggle for Hegemony in India 1920-1947.3 vols. New Delhi: Sage Publishers, 1994, 1992, 1992.
- Mc Girk, Tim. “IEO Profile: Jyoti Basu, Popular Indian Communist Leader.” MediaWebIndia. 1996-97. Web.
- Narain, Iqbal, ed. State Politics in India. Begum Bridge: Meenaksi Prakashan, 1966.
- Ray, Rabindra. The Naxalites and their Ideology. Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- Photo: Jyoti Basu, graduate of the London School of Economics, and CPI (M) chief minister of West Bengal from 1977-2001
Author: Megan Franzone, Fall 1997
Last edited: October 2017