Was Charu Mazumdar an ‘Actionist’ Hero and Theorist Zero?

- Arindam Sen

Isn’t it interesting and encouraging? More than 30 years have elapsed, and perhaps upwards of thirty thousand pages of research-work have been published on it, and yet the spring-thunder of 1967 continues to attract a steady stream of researchers in India and abroad! Well that’s only a measure of the wide, deep and continuing impact of a movement which changed everything in India — including the academia — and which persistently refuses to become a thing of the past. The present work, mainly based on the doctoral dissertation of a teacher in political science, is particularly valuable in that it is expected to combine the best of both worlds: the activist and the academic. As an insider of the movement the author benefited from meetings with many cadres and top leaders during 1974-81. Later, as we learn from the cover jacket, he “grew somewhat critical of the Naxalite groups and that considerably helped him to conduct the present research with a balanced, impartial and academic point of view.” From this position he designates the communist revolutionaries “Maoists” and seeks to “trace the intellectual history of Maoists in West Bengal.” (Emphases added) However, he contradicts the fashionable viewpoint, which sees the Naxalbari movement as a sudden New Left or Maoist explosion alien to the traditions of the communist movement in India and convincingly shows that it “developed as a critique of the latter and emerged from within it.”

The battle between the opportunist and the revolutionary streams in our movement is almost as old as the movement itself. It became particularly sharp and palpable since the mid-1940s, with Telengana emerging as the foremost battlefield both in terms of theory and practice. The next major flashpoint was the movement, which started from Naxalbari, whose architects saw their own work as a direct continuation of what had been initiated in Telengana. The present work does not take this long shot of the all-India backdrop: it covers a particular period (1953-67) in a particular state (West Bengal). The crucial developments of 1951 (e.g., withdrawal of the Telengana struggle, the CPI delegation to Moscow, the adoption of Party Programme and Statement of Policy in the all India conference which removed Andhra leaders like Rajeshwar Rao and Vasavpunniah from the central committee and elected a centrist-rightist core of leadership dominated by Ajay Ghosh, the General Secretary, and S. A. Dange) are thus left out of focus. So is the post-Naxalbari process of polemics, polarization and unification, which saw the real consummation of the long round of anti-revisionist struggle in the birth of CPI (ML) in 1969.

Within the limited span and area of study, however, Pradip Basu has done a very commendable job in making available to us a great wealth of information on inner-party developments, summaries of documents etc. assembled from innumerable sources, including private collections. The book has two parts. The first part is historical and informative, the second analytical and deductive.

In the former, the author narrates how a great number of cadres at local, district and state levels were carrying on a relentless struggle against revisionist tendencies of the party leadership right from the time of the Madurai Congress (1953). The reader comes across a wide array of vital facts on, say, the early literary-political activities of Saroj Dutt, the peasant struggles organized by Jangal Santhal, Kanu Sanyal & others in Tarai since the 1950s, the series of elaborate theoretical documents authored by leading cadres like Parimal Das Gupta (PDG), Sushital Roy Choudhury (SRC) and so on.

Particularly interesting is the brief but authentic sketch of the small incidents which throw light on the formation of Charu Mazumdar’s (CM) political-organizational views. An organizer of the Tebhaga movement, he was censured by the Jalpaiguri District Committee for leading a militant peasant struggle in 1948, and transferred to the trade union front. Next year he was arrested for militant trade union activities and sentenced to three years’ prison term. After release he was elected secretary of the same committee, which had censured him. Before long he went back to Darjeeling, his home district, and concentrated on the peasant front. Here again, he faced suspension, this time for his fight against the bureaucratic practices of the district secretary. But considering his track record and his immense popularity among party cadres and toiling people in North Bengal, the state committee had to intervene and rescind the suspension order. In view of the intense inner-party debates in the mid-’50s, CM took the lead in organizing a two-month education camp for Siliguri sub-division; as a follow-up action he introduced the practice of holding brief theoretical discussions in every party meeting. He was opposed to the system of wholetimers’ allowance and asked wholetime cadres to stay among and depend on basic masses for all needs. Following him, the old system was abolished in Siliguri. As a party candidate in the 1964 by-election in Siliguri, he condemned the Indian aggression on China and propagated the politics of armed peasant movement in open mass meetings. In 1964 he conditionally accepted the draft program for the formative congress of the CPI(M), even as PDG came up with an alternative draft, which evoked little response. Basu also presents us with such little-known facts as CM’s partial political differences with Kanu Sanyal as early as 1966. No less instructive is the description of the theoretical battles launched from unauthorized inner-party fora like the Chinta group (formed around a polemical journal published by Amulya Sen, Suprokash Roy and others), the Institute of Marxism-Leninism (founded on 22 April 1964 and run by SRC, Asit Sen and Saroj Datta, it functioned as a small library, a center for study and ideological discussion, and also a publishing unit), and so on.

Surveying the vast range of such varied activities, the author splits (should we say deconstructs?) them into two separate and distinct streams of struggle against revisionism: the “debatist” and the “actionist”. The latter “finds expression through the documents, discussions, letters and activities of Charu Mazumdar” and his associates who “lost hope in theoretical debate” and therefore “directed all efforts to build up militant political action, especially peasants’ armed struggle …”. All other radical individuals and factions together comprised the debatist tendency, which “concentrated on a long term theoretical debate within the party”, with little attempt to build model revolutionary movements.

The “structural features” of these two streams are analysed in great detail in Part-II, and in the process the author offers his own critical comments. And of course, his conclusion: the ‘actionists’ lacked theory while the ‘debatists’ lacked action; the CPI(ML) was founded on the basis of former (because the Maoists had grown impatient with prolonged inner-party struggle) and here lay the main root of subsequent disaster. As Basu explains towards the close of his book, “Mazumdar’s leadership was based not on his theoretical superiority, ideological maturity or his ability to think ahead of others. His leadership, on the contrary, was action-based.” Thanks to the “non-ideological, non- theoretical and empirical basis” of their unification after the Naxalbari uprising, “Naxalites differed on theoretical issues from the very outset” and this “caused them to splinter into several groups”. (emphasis in the original)

Shorn of scholarly sophistication, the concluding theme is simple: the CPI (ML) movement was doomed to failure because it was ideologically under-prepared and formed under the leadership of one who was great as an actionist but inferior (to the ‘debatists’) as a theoretician. Well, we are hearing assessments like this for the umpteenth time since the 1970s. Still we need to re-examine this position, for only with a correct understanding of party history is it possible to properly develop our current work by fighting out dogmatist and liquidationist tendencies.

In the first place, to suggest — as Basu does — that CM’s leadership was based just on the Naxalbari uprising is simply ridiculous. For in that case it would not have lasted beyond August 1967, by which time the uprising had all but collapsed. Everybody knows that leading cadres in West Bengal and other states finally chose CM their leader in April 1969 and May 1970 (when the First Party Congress was held), i.e., only after watching and discussing his concepts and the actual results thereof for full two-three years.

“Mazumdar’s analysis of political, strategic, tactical and organizational questions”, Basu takes great pains to demonstrate, “was simplistic and superficial”. This position, let us repeat, is held by many others, what these erudite analysts share in common is an elitist-esoteric conception of Marxist theory. They lack a historical and dialectical approach in studying the forms and features of theoretical work, which are shaped differently accordingly to the demands of different situations. So, they also fail to grasp the live, two-way, dynamic relation between conceptualization and implementation. This becomes self-evident if we cast a quick glance over the international experience in this regard.

Faced with the task of raising the foundation of a brand new theory, Marx and Engels had to produce rather ‘heavy’ works like the German Ideology, Capital, Anti-Duhring etc. along with ‘actionist’ documents like the Communist Manifesto. Then the rise of imperialism and the need as well as experience of applying Marxism in extremely varied (including backward capitalist) conditions demanded its thorough extension and all-round development: hence the voluminous works of Lenin and his associates. The basics having been laid down, Mao directed all attention to integrating the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with the peculiar Chinese conditions. This circumstance, the conditions of protracted revolutionary war and the rural milieu in which Chinese communists had to work, largely determined the nature and scope of his writings — which were so different from the European tradition that in many quarters he is regarded as a great revolutionary, but not a first-rate theoretician. It is also notable that most of Mao’s early writings are ‘actionist’, so to say, and the bulk of his more mature ‘theoretical’ expositions came only in and around 1939, when the time and opportunity came for an overall summing-up of experience.

In our country, the programme-guide of Indian revolution was produced, in the shape of CM’s Eight Documents, at one of those rare moments in history when — as Marx had commented — taking one step in revolutionary action becomes more important than drawing up a dozen programmes. Moreover, by 1965 polemics within the narrow confines of the party had reached a saturation point and could not proceed further without involving the broad masses. CM expressed this perfectly well when he commented that the real fight against revisionism could not be started until the peasantry embarked on a struggle against it through revolutionary practice. In a word, those were exceptional times, and he chose not to follow, as Basu points out (as a mark of CM’s theoretical hollowness!), “the usual methods of Communist Party discourse”. For example, unlike ‘debatists’ like PDG he “did not even once refer to Lenin’s famous text on the assessment of a revolutionary situation”! What did he do, then? He pointed out the specific manifestations of Lenin’s criteria of revolutionary crisis in contemporary India: the rising militancy in spontaneous mass movements throughout the land even in the face of brutal state repression, indicating that the people were no longer ready to live in the old way; and the dismal failure of the ruling classes to solve the food crisis and maintain a stable rule in the old way through the Congress party.

Equally simple (“axiomatic” in the words of Basu), forthright and piercing were his formulations on the Soviet-aided state sector (steel and petroleum, for example) serving the interests of big private capital, on the overwhelmingly comprador complexion of the Indian bourgeoisie (a feature ignored or under-rated not only by the official CPI and CPI(M) leaderships, but also by certain sections of critics) and a whole range of ideological, political and organizational questions. The result was that CM’s writings began to attract, right from 1965, both the revolutionary ranks and some of the leading cadres who had been carrying on rigorous theoretical battles since well before CM started wielding his pen. An actionist-debatist division between CM and the others is schematic and artificial; it only serves to obfuscate the simple fact that all of them — in different parts of the country, at various levels of the party organisation, and each according to his/her highest abilities and perceptions — were fighting for the same cause and that is why they jealously accepted the leadership of a fellow comrade who proved himself the most advanced in theory, in practice, in the integration of theory and practice, and in guiding the work of party building. And certainly it was the collective effort and wisdom of all of them that led to the expansion of the movement beyond Naxalbari and West Bengal and to the birth of the CPI(ML).

Do all these mean that CM’s leadership was flawless? By no means. Were there no theoretical lacunae and disputes in the AICCCR and the CPI(ML)? Yes, there were; some, quite serious. And would it not have been better if unanimity or near-unanimity was reached before the new party was launched? Indeed it would have. Only the problem is that revolutions are made (or attempted) and revolutionary parties are founded not in libraries or under ideal laboratory conditions, but in the wide world of class struggle, in the course of zigzag developments that often confront revolutionaries with tasks, for the accomplishment of which adequate subjective preparation, and maybe some aspects of objective conditions, are lacking. All such junctures – the November revolution, for example – always give rise to sharp debates between the petty bourgeois doctrinaire and proletarian revolutionary tendencies in Marxism.

Leaders of the Second International vehemently criticized the Bolsheviks for their attempt to build socialism in a single country, that too in backward Russia, in contravention of the original Marxist vision of socialist revolution in all or at least several advanced capitalist countries simultaneously. Replying to them, Lenin observed in the article Our Revolution (1921): “They all call themselves Marxists, but their conception of Marxism is impossibly pedantic. They have completely failed to understand what is decisive in Marxism, namely, its revolutionary dialectics” and that “their conception of ‘normal’ is extremely stereotyped and narrow.” So “they are completely strangers to the idea that” in special circumstances variations and peculiarities in “either the form or the sequence of development” are almost inevitable. In 1917 and thereafter, Lenin pointed out, Russia was passing through precisely such extra-ordinary times when revolutionary Marxists could not just hide behind textbooks. They must, he observed, dare to creatively apply Marxism and act like Napoleon who had said: “First engage in a serious battle and then see what happens.”

CM was the first and foremost in India to grasp this “revolutionary dialectics” of Marxism, to espouse this Bolshevik spirit. Fully aware that an ideal level of subjective preparation was lacking, he nevertheless called upon the revolutionary ranks and the leading fighters against revisionism to respond to the rapidly ripening revolutionary situation in theory and practice. When a few among the revolutionary groups, assembled in the AICCCR, argued for postponing the formation of the new party till the theoretical debates were settled, CM’s reply was that this was an idealist and perfectionist viewpoint. Revolution is knocking on the door, he said; we must forge ahead with revolutionary party building on the basis of our current understanding, leaving the unresolved questions to be settled in the light of new experience and in the course of inner-party polemics. In the given conditions, this alone could be the correct proletarian position, which made possible India’s 1905 – the mother of the revolutionary Marxist-Leninist tradition. Those of us who failed to appreciate this in 1969 (e.g., the MCC) – as well as those who, in later years, rejected or disowned this historic achievement and moved backward to a pre-party stage (‘unity centre’, ‘team’, league’, or simply ‘organisation’) – never achieved anything concrete in terms of building a revolutionary communist party in India. As for the deviations of the first phase of our movements, they were positively overcome, and real, sustainable breakthroughs in concepts and activities were achieved, not by the early ‘rectifiers’ who put all the blame on CM, but by a small group of ‘actionists’ who placed the greatest emphasis on preserving our fine revolutionary traditions.

To return to our topic. It is evident from Basu’s account that CM always preferred to remain a man of the masses – a conscious, independent-minded but disciplined soldier fighting at the grassroots. But when the situation demanded, he did not shrink from the responsibilities of the highest party position in the most difficult of circumstances. And that despite his awful physical conditions. It is all right to discuss and rectify his mistakes. But it is definitely wrong to underestimate the solid ideological, political and organizational foundations he and his comrades-in-arms laid for the revolutionary party of India. If Marxism is not a dogma but a guide to action, if the hallmark of a Marxist theoretician is not the ability to parrot the classics but the capacity to offer original insights and specific answers to such questions as where and how to begin, if a great Marxist leader is one, in whose vision and action theory becomes a material force gripping the masses, then CM must be honoured as a Marxist theorist par excellence. He was an actionist, no doubt about it, much in the sense in which Engels had remarked that Marx was, above all, a revolutionary. Any assessment of the prelude to Naxalbari, which is based on an erroneous appraisal of his role – or, more generally, of the theory-practice interface in the movement – is bound to be misleading. Pradip Basu’s well-researched and well-meaning volume is a profound proof of that.

Towards Naxalbari (1953-1967)

Pradip Basu

Progressive Publishers, Calcutta

Price : Rs. 200 (pages 278+16)