Bombay: The Stalinist Leadership and the Destruction of the working class


-Adhiraj Bose

Introduction : The following is an old article written by us and published in the site of the old new wave, when we still worked together with Rajesh Tyagi in New Delhi. The importance of this article must be understood and appreciated as it gives an insight into an important period in the history of class struggle in Maharashtra. The failure of the Stalinists is a stark reminder of the consequences of class-conciliationist and pacifist approaches in tackling the threat of fascism.

Any visitor to the cities of Maharashtra, would be greeted, today, with the sight of saffron flags and pompous glorification of Thakares. But the cities of Maharashtra today, especially its capital Bombay, bear a striking contrast to the cities, as they were in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. For these cities of Maharashtra were once one of the leading bastions of the working class and Communists. Mumbai in particular had a militant tradition among the working classes since the days of the freedom struggle. One has only to look at the glorious history of the workers struggles, there in the textile mills to get an idea of the city that once was. The situation around 1970, could be judged from the fact that the armed squads of the workers, used to disband the ‘Shakhas’ of fascists forcibly and publicly beat up those attending these Shakhas, conducted by Shiv Sena and RSS.

In the national context this was happening at a time of severe economic crisis of 70’s, when the national and local bourgeois could have risked such labour militancy, less than ever. The decade of the 1970’s was infamous as a decade of acute fiscal deficit and mounting inflation. At this crucial juncture of the crisis of bourgeois regime, the militancy of workers arose and consequently the influence of the Communists over them. Under the influence of workers movement a militant youth movement was also taking shape at fast pace. The youth movement was to have tremendous impact on the political life of Maharashtra, once this movement integrated itself with the labour movement and succeeded in mobilising behind it the discontented Marathi youth. In that eventuality, the bourgeois, both liberal and fascist, would have been completely isolated.

The powerful levers of the real mass movement of the working class, elevated the CPI and its leader Krishna Desai, an MLA form Dadar, to the mass leadership in entire Maharashtra, followed not only by sections of petty bourgeois in the cities, but vast majority of the peasant toilers in the villages.

The puzzle then bogs the mind of a visitor to Bombay, how come this real left bastion, which rested upon the might of such a militant working class, with great fighting traditions to its credit, was bogged down by the fascist bands of Shiv Sena?

The roots of this historic failure, can only be traced to the fact that though the working class in Bombay and other cities of Maharashtra, showed heroism in the struggles against its class enemies, but unfortunately, the overall leadership of this movement remained, at the time, in the hands of the Stalinist CPI. The flawed policies of the Stalinists, which based themselves on class collaboration with national bourgeois and its parties in the name of popular-front, developed a very docile and capitulationist caricature of revolutionary Marxism. This tail-ist attitude of Stalinist leadership, was in fact, no match for the rising militancy of the working class. Sooner than later, the inevitable was to happen. Either the working would have overthrown its bogus Stalinists leadership, before setting out to overthrow the bourgeois power, or the bourgeois was to destroy the working class and its movement. It was in the interest of the bourgeois as a whole, and primarily of the Congress, to check the advance of rising militancy of the working class.

The bourgeois had sensed the danger in the offing, and rightly so, which the militant working class has aroused in its heart. The sword of a proletarian upsurge, was hanging right above the head of its regime, as Bombay was commercial nerve centre of the country, known as its commercial capital. Not the local bourgeois, but the national bourgeois was thus deeply concerned about the immense growth of the movement of the working class. If bourgeois rule was to survive, it was imperative upon its leaders to break the back of the labour movement, as soon as possible.

The bourgeois had already formed its rabidly fascist wing, under the banner of Shiv Sena in late 1960’s, on the tune and patterns of SS bands of Hitler, and white shirts of Mussolini, with an all out support of section of the State and its armed forces , primarily of the state police, to it. It started raising mass chauvinist hysteria against the South Indians, in Bombay, majority of whom, were workers. This was fuelled by the demands for a unified Maharashtra which had come to a conclusion in the formation of the state of Maharashtra on 1st May 1960. The Shiv Sena based itself on this passing mood, and by fanning it out of proportion, rose it to cultural regional chauvinism to gain support among the petty bourgeois middle classes of Mumbai and Pune. If it could meet with partial success, it was due to political impotence of the Stalinist leadership. Shiv Sena, however, failed to make any serious inroads even into the middle class petty bourgeois of Maharashtra, much less the trust and support of the workers. This was the strength and influence of the working class at that time.

The sectarian split of Stalinist leadership, in mid 1960’s, and the ensuing dog-fight between the two factions for bureaucratic controls over the movement for their narrow ends, adversely affected the unity of the working class. The Shiv Sena sought an opportune moment, finding the space for itself and the ground to discredit the leadership, as a political force, in the eyes of the workers. In tacit understanding with a section of the Congress, the Sena penetrated the rank and file in the Maharashtrian workers, and simultaneously started attacking non-Maharashtrian Communist leaders. This dual tactic, slowly but surely, yielded the results. Street fights often broke out between the fascist forces of the SS and that of the CPI. This reached a fever pitch in the late sixties in the famous Worli street fights which lasted for months. These clashes reached their climax in June 1970 with the murder of popular CPI leader Krishna Desai.

Preceding the murder was a Sena assault on the CPI office in Mumbai, in which the office was burnt down. The workers became furious on this, and a large gathering of armed workers numbering in the thousands assembled at the charred office. In this frenzied mood the workers vowed to wipe out the fascists in one day. Workers were all prepared to execute their will. But the bogus Stalinist leadership was frightened and could not dare to issue a signal. The armed workers looked towards the leadership, but the leadership consciously held them back. The truth is that the sight of armed workers ready to attack, struck not an inspiration but fear in the minds of the Stalinist leadership itself, because of its own allegiance to the bourgeois. They feared losing control over the workers at that moment and prevented the workers from rising against the impending fascist threat. The Shiv Sena, however, was not so sparing. It immediately identified an opportunity in the dwindling mood of Stalinist leadership and wasted no time in advancing the assault against the working class. Stalinist leadership, instead of signalling the workers to confront the fascist advance, ran away from Bombay.

Emboldened by the docile attitude of Stalinist leadership, the Sena dared to conspire to physically eliminate kill Krishna Desai. By this time the fascists in Mumbai had managed to muster the open support of the Congress leadership for their project. In June 1970, men from Shiv Sena, headed by Bal Thakrey himself, killed Krishna Desai in broad daylight, in full public view. The attack left the Stalinist leadership stunned. While Stalinists remained in dilemma, the fascists carried out the murderous campaign of annihilation of the movement. Having disposed of its arch communist nemesis, Shiv Sena became ever more bold, and by the mid-eighties it forced significant intrusion into the trade unions of Mumbai. Perplexed and confused Stalinist leadership, having no independent policy to counter fascists, kept on looking towards the bourgeois state to tackle the fascists, which in fact, lend a supporting hand to the fascists to wipe out the movement of the working class. With a do-nothing attitude, the Stalinist leaders looked at the labour movement being finished by the murderous hordes of the fascist Shiv Sainiks with the obvious backing of the Congress. This left the working class in disarray.
Thus came the tragic end of the labour militancy in Maharashtra and the rise of fascists!

After betraying the cause of the working class, the Stalinists, however gained through parliamentary manuevre, on the back of the crushing defeat of the working class. As an echo of the heroic battle of the working class in the recent past, the CPI managed to gain a considerable number of seats in the state assembly, in 1978 elections, with the lifting of the emergency. This shadow influence however, could not have last long. Instead of fighting, the Stalinists, rapidly adapted to the influence of armed hordes of the Shiv Sena fascists, who in time managed to decimate the entire labour movement in Maharashtra.

Shiv Sena, thus gradually increased its strength with the tacit support of the Congress and the overt support of the bourgeois, both local and national. By 1995, Sena managed to form the government in Maharashtra with support of the BJP. In the meanwhile the working class in Maharashtra, continued to be more and more marginalised as a political force, partly under the Stalinists and partly under fascists.

And what of the workers? The onslaught of fascism and the subsequent move to liberalization in the 1990s and the first years of the twenty first century have lead to ever greater pains for the working masses. The decade of the 90’s witnessed to major riots pitted against muslims, a clear effort to further divide and weaken the proletariat of Maharashtra who had already been weakened by the destruction of its movement and its further division at the hands of fascists, on the lines of regional chauvinism and false identities.

The failure of the Stalinist CPI to mobilise the working class for a virtual fight against the fascists, thus led to the complete destruction of the labour movement as a whole in Maharashtra, paving way for the eventual rise of fascism. This bogus policy of Stalinists, was only the replica of their old policy which had led to defeat of Communists in Germany, Spain etc. at the hands of the fascists. In both cases it was the hopelessly reactionary line of the Stalinist Comintern, which had paved the way for the defeat of mature revolutions and the eventual rise of fascist forces.

The events of 1970 are a watershed in the history of the working class in India. The lessons of 1970’s call for an ouster of Stalinist leadership from the labour movement, not only in Bombay, but everywhere in the country. The line propounded by Leon Trotsky of confronting the fascists directly relying upon the forces of a United Front of the working class, is the only way to advance.

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