The strange death of Indian Communism

From the Fifties to the Seventies, there was serious debate on how imminent the Communist Revolution was in India.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Updated: January 10, 2016 12:51 am
a b bardhan, ab bardhan death, cpi leader bardhan, bardhan cpi leader, indian left parties, cpi, cpim, communism in india, indian express column Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the last farewell of veteran CPI leader AB Bardhan who passed away in New Delhi. (Source: Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

CPI LEADER leader A B Bardhan’s demise reminded us how little the Left matters today. The Communists are the most honest, decent people in Indian politics. They are also the most irrelevant.

Few can imagine how unlikely this is. From the Fifties to the Seventies, there was serious debate on how imminent the Communist Revolution was in India. The future was red. Now of course no one takes Communists or even Communism seriously. The Soviet Union collapsed without anyone firing a shot. Leninism proved to be a delusion which could not survive the 20th century.

Even so, the reputation was that the Communists were a disciplined party whose members followed the line laid down. They were going to start the Revolution with mass support. Nehru would be exiled like Chiang Kai Shek was.

Why did Communism fail so abysmally? Marx had a fascination with Capitalism and admired its immense productive potential. He and Engels advertised the advent of globalisation in their youthful Communist Manifesto. His ideal of Socialism was timed for well after the maturity of Capitalism.

It was Lenin who changed the argument. He was shocked by the breakdown of working class internationalism in the First World War. He saw the future as dark. He bet that Capitalism would blow itself up due to increasing crises. His lucky victory in Russia established his idea as the Marxism for the Twentieth century.

Communism’s luck continued and Capitalism suffered the Great Depression. It looked like the Revolution was imminent. Lenin had conflated Imperialism and Capitalism. This enhanced the appeal of Communism for the colonies. Stalin consigned millions to concentration camps but the idea that the Soviet Union was the hope of the world remained strong. Victory in the Second World War and then taking over Eastern European countries enhanced the reputation of the Soviet Union. China had its own Revolution which confirmed Lenin’s wisdom that the Communist revolution would start in the backward countries, not developed ones as Marx may have thought. India was supposed to be the next ripe fruit to fall. The CPI had blotted its copybook by supporting the British rulers during the war, as for them the fight was for defence of the Soviet Union. They denounced independence as illusory and launched a premature Revolution in Telangana. Stalin thought India was not ready for a Revolution. So the Communists began to play the democracy game under orders waiting for the signal to revolt.

Alas, they never understood the Indian society and the salience of caste. They romanticised the working class, small as it was, employed in the few large factories. But economic growth stagnated due to distrust of the private sector. India failed to industrialise. The working class remained small.

Then Indira Gandhi cleverly bought out the communists by giving them patronage. The Communists abandoned any critique of the Indian political system and only criticised imperialists. Alas, for them Capitalism proved more robust than Lenin had thought and it revived while Leninism lost the battle of economic power.

The Rao/ Singh government abandoned the failed model of Socialism in 1991 and liberalised the economy which began to grow. Then the Communists challenged Manmohan Singh on the nuclear issue and Congress ‘unfriended’ the Communists. Communism became an irrelevant sideshow. Indian Communism, RIP.


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  1. K
    Khurshid Ahmad
    Jan 10, 2016 at 6:37 pm
    I think it is more the chameleon character of capitalism that proved fatal to communism. In Indian case, diversity has been a serious factor that put breaks on communism. Factors lime caste, region, sects and so on were miscalculated by Indian communists as they peged their theory and practice of communism only on religion.
    1. S
      Jan 10, 2016 at 12:39 pm
      Mr. Desai, Would your next column please be "Strange Raise of RSS !". Parallel to the death of communism is the raise of Hindu Nationalism. From the Fifties to the Seventies, none including the self less pracharks, working far away from public gaze, thought they would have a Pracharak as prime minister, with their party winning majority on its own in Loksabha. There is something right which RSS must be doing, there is something in Indian DNA which supports Hindu Nationalism, western trained intellectuals like missing. Will Mr. Desai remove his visceral hatred towards hindutva and study is objectively to find out from where its strong power to withstand adversities, and to grow is coming.
      1. T
        Jan 10, 2016 at 2:32 pm
        Best thing that happened is end of Communism
        1. K
          K SHESHU
          Jan 10, 2016 at 7:21 am
          Communists have failed communism . The importance of working-cl movements have been neglected by the Indian mainstream communist parties. Hence, they have lost relevance.
          1. M
            Jan 10, 2016 at 8:16 am
            Great article, insightful.
          2. A
            Abhijit Bhattacharya
            Jan 10, 2016 at 2:18 am
            Alas, the pressure of churning out a piece per week can reduce an apparently knowledgable person to a charlatan. Like the communists of the yesteryears the author is also trapped in a binary logic and can't see that the world has moved much ahead from the traditional capitalist-socialist dichotomy. Tremendous response that Bernie Sanders is getting in the ongoing presidential campaign or Jeremy Corbyn's rise in author's own country is certainly telling a different story. Unfortunately, Lord Desais of the world are too preoccupied to fit the 21st century into the early 20th century, which they studied and analysed well
            1. A
              Achuta Bhat
              Jan 10, 2016 at 1:30 pm
              In the name of justice for working cl, communists fought with the private industrialists which caused the closure of industries. When the industries were closed, communist membership decreased. Fearing the communists new industries did not come up and hence no new membership for the communists. Communists cut the tree branch on which they were sitting.
              1. R
                Jan 10, 2016 at 11:03 am
                Communism is the only hope for third world countries. But, as Jawaharlal Nehru pointed out in Discovery of India, the Indian communist leaders never took into account the Indian realities. Once they realize it and act, the future is certainly RED!
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