Socialist and Communist Movements during Colonial Period

Socialist and Communist Movements during Colonial Period

This article deals with ‘ Socialist and Communist Movements during Colonial Period – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Modern History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here


  • Socialism aims at ending exploitation of vast majority of helpless humanity by small, powerful minority & remove consequent injustices & inequalities from the society .These ideas became widespread after Russian Revolution
  • In such circumstances,  some patriotic  Indian intellectuals & militants particularly those who have either lived in western countries or established contacts were drawn towards those ideas eg. Madame Cama, Shyamji Krishna Verma etc . They operated from abroad till World War 1 & were outside Congress framework & hardly made any impact on policies of Congress till end of Non Cooperation Movement (NCM) .But after that Socialist ideas began to influence INC.  Powerful left wing group developed in late 1920s & 1930s,  contributing to radicalization of national movement
  • Socialist ideas acquired roots in the Indian soil & became the accepted creed of Indian youth whose urges came to be symbolized by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.
  • Two important powerful Left Parties emerged
    1. Communist Party of India (CPI)
    2. Congress Socialist Parties(CSP)

Reasons for Growth of Leftist Movement in India

Main reasons for growth were

  • Industrial development in certain places like Bombay, Calcutta & Madras  leading to large & concentrated worker’s population in those places . Gradually  they started organizing themselves to demand better working conditions leading to emergence of Trade Unions
  • On 7 Nov 1917,  Bolshevik Party led by Lenin overthrew despotic Czarist regime. Lesson learnt that if the common people — the workers and peasants and the intelligentsia — could unite and overthrow the mighty Czarist Empire , then the Indian people battling against British imperialism could also do so
  • Socialist ideas began to spread rapidly especially because many young persons who had participated in Non Cooperation Movement (NCM)  were unhappy with its outcome and were dissatisfied with Gandhian policies and ideas as well as the alternative Swarajist programme.
  • In 1919 , Third Communist International organised by Soviet government aimed at bringing communist revolution & establishing government of Working class all over world . This gave impetus
  • First WW led to  high inflation but industrialists adamant not to increase wages of workers leading to their organised mobilization
  • Since Nationalist movement also became mass movement ,  nationalist leaders saw potential to draw masses towards their movement through this . Lala  Lajpat Rai was first president of All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC)

Condition of Workers

  • Living condition was miserable
  • They worked for 15 & even 18 hours a day
  • There were no leave rule & no security of jobs
  • They lived in dark,damp slums with no water supply & no sanitary arrangements
  • In Coal Mines of Jharia & Giridh condition was even more miserable . They worked from 6 AM to 6 PM + woman & children worked underground + accidents leading to death was frequent & until 1923 government introduced no insurance scheme
  • There was no provision of Provident fund . When they aged, were thrown out of job with no avenue of income

Attitude of mainstream National Movement towards workers

Whole process can be divided into different stages

1 . Early Nationalists

  • Paid very little attention towards question of workers although truly wretched conditions prevailed
  • Major reason for that was anti imperialist movement was in its infancy & nationalists didn’t wish to weaken common struggle against British rule by creating any divisions within ranks of Indian people
  • Most of these leaders were from upper strata of society – western educated middle class which included categories of rentiers , professionals & entrepreneurs
  • Upto World War (WW) 1, these leaders were just trying to win concessions by means of petitions , memorandums etc & hadn’t thought of raising mass movement

2. Later (towards end of 19th century)

Efforts were organised to secure better bargaining position vis a vis more powerful classes in common anti imperialist front but here two different approaches

Labour vs Indigenous Employer Were unwilling to take this question & denied any need of government legislation to regulate working conditions . They actively opposed Factories Act of 1881 & 1889
But there were nationalist reasons for this because Britishers were doing this not for labour but to make Indian industries out of race by taking from them edge that they get via cheap labour of India + nationalists looked Indian Industrial growth as way to remove poverty .
Labour vs British Enterprises Scenario completely altered in this situation
– No hesitation in giving full support to workers  because employer & employee were not part & parcel of same nation

Indian National Congress (INC) began campaign against manner in which tea plantation workers were virtually reduced to slaves
First organised strike in Indian history by signalers of Great Peninsula Railways in 1899 in which Nationalist newspapers & Tilak came in full support

Trade Unionism & Communism in India

Meaning of Trade Union

  • Association of workers formed with purpose of improving the conditions under which they work in mills & factories
  • These workers  were mostly illiterate &  didn’t have any idea in the beginning of forming Trade Unions and uniting themselves.
  • There were a few ‘outsiders’ mostly intellectuals, who tried for years to educate and organise them in Trade Unions. Very often they became leaders of the unions.

1 . Early Attempts to improve workers conditions

  • Towards the end of 19th century, Nationalist Intelligentsia began to associate itself with working class agitation but these were sporadic, spontaneous & unorganised revolts
Sorabjee Shapoorjee Bengalee 1878 : tried unsuccessfully to introduce a Bill in the Bombay Legislative Council to limit the working hours for labour
Sasipanda Banerjea In Bengal, Brahmo Social Reformer, set up a Workingmen’s Club in 1870 and brought out a monthly journal called Bharat Sramjeebi (Indian Labour)
  • All these activities were philanthropic in nature & didn’t represent beginning of organised working class movement

2. During Swadeshi Movement Period

  • Number of strikes rose rapidly & many Swadeshi leaders enthusiastically threw themselves into task of organising stable trade unions, strikes, legal aid & fund collection drives
  • Most  important feature of the labour movement during the Swadeshi days was the shift from agitations and struggles on purely economic questions to wider political issues of the day.
Bengal 16 Oct 1905 (day of partition of Bengal) –  workers of Jute Mills & jute press factories , railway coolies & carters all struck work
– Burn Company Shipyard in Howrah didn’t permit its workers to participate in Fed Hall meeting & they went on strike
Tamil Nadu In Tuticorin, Subramania Siva campaigned for a strike in February-March 1908 in a foreign-owned cotton mill saying that strikes for higher wages would lead to the demise of foreign mills.
Punjab RawalpindiArsenal and Railway Engineering Workers went on strike as part of the 1907 upsurge in the Punjab which had led to the deportation of Lajpat Rai and Ajit Singh. Perhaps the biggest political demonstration by the working class in this period
  • This Period also saw faint beginning of Socialist tinge among some of Nationalist Leaders who were exposed to Marxist & social democratic forces in Europe . Eg : Dadabhai Naoroji

3. End of 1910s & start of 20s


  • Most important happening was Formation of All India Trade Union Congress in 1920
  • Tilak developed close association with Bombay workers & played important role , from Punjab Lala Lajpat Rai came & he was first President whereas  Dewan Chaman Lal first General Secretary
  • Urged workers to intervene in nationalist politics
  • Lala Lajpat Rai was among first in India to link capitalism with imperialism & emphasised greater role of workers in fighting this combination
  • Second Session of AITUC  moved resolution in favour of SWARAJ & said swaraj would be for workers & not capitalists
  • Congress in its Gaya session of 1922 welcomed formation of AITUC & formed committee to assist its work

During Non Cooperation Movement (NCM)

  • Railway workers extended full support to  NCM & Khilafat movement
  • Nov 1921 at time of visit of Prince of Wales workers responded to boycott nationwide & in Bombay textile factories were closed with about 1.4 lakh workers on strike

After 1922

  • Again  lull in workers movement & reversion to only economic struggle
  • Wait till end of 1920s when it again revived with greater vengeance

Personality : MN Roy

  • Original Name was Narendranath Bhattachareya &  born in 1889 in poor Brahmin family of Bengal . He was revolutionary Terrorist in early life & got educated from National University of Aurobindo Ghosh. During  WW 1 , wanted to bring armed revolution through German Arms along with Pulin Bihari Ghosh  but failed and went to USA.
  • He changed name to MN Roy, studied Marxist literature extensively & became Communist. USA entered war from Britain side & was not safe for him to stay in US . He moved to Mexico where with Russian communist Borodin formed Communist Party of Mexico
  • After war , on call of Lenin he went to USSR . He helped evolve  Communist International’s policy towards colonies . Lenin held that Communists should extend support to Revolutionary Movement carried by Bourgeois Nationalists against Imperialist Governments but Roy held that Bourgeois Nationalists were reactionaries & communists should carry their struggle independently forming parties of Workers & Peasants
  • In Oct 1920 , came to Tashkent &  opened Military School for training Indian Frontier Tribes + formed  CPI  affiliated to Communist International in 1921

Peshawar Conspiracy Case

  • Caliph Controversy happened in 1920 .  Thousands of Muslim Mujahirs (pilgrims) came to his school for training but it was closed by then & they were trained in Communist University of Toilers in Moscow
  • When they went back , were arrested & tried under Peshawar Conspiracy case .  2 given 2 year imprisonment & rest 1 year hard imprisonment

4. Mid of 1920s & start of 1930s- Rise of Communist ideology – Formation of Communist Party of India (CPI)& Workers and Peasants Party (WPP)

  • Independent of this, various communist organisations were coming up in India since 1920 & in Dec 1925 , they met in Kanpur to form CPI
  • Constitution of Party was also announced aimed at
    • Attainment of complete independence 
    • Reorganisation of Indian society on basis of common ownership
    • Distribution of wealth in interest of whole community
  • From 1926 , British Communists started to come India for organising Indian Communist Movement. But this infant movement continued to suffer various drawbacks
    • Suffered from paucity of funds
    • Suffered from paucity of cadre
    • British government was hostile towards CPI because of its revolutionary character & affiliation to Communist International
    • Privileged upper strata of Indian society was opposed to it

Workers & Peasants Party (WPP)

  • From 1927 , Communists also started to organize themselves into the Workers’ and Peasants’ Parties (WPP), under the leadership of people like S.A. Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, P.C. Joshi and Sohan Singh Josh
  • WPP were formed in Punjab & Bombay ( later found in Meerut too) & main medium of propagation of ideas was Press
Punjab WPP Mehnatkash (Urdu weekly)
Bombay WPP Kranti (Marathi Weekly)
  • Communist influence on  trade unions was also increasing & they were playing important role in workers strikes( Kharagpur Railway factory Strike of 1928 & Bombay Textile Workers strike) . Communist Girni Kamgar Union(Bombay’s) membership reached 52,000  towards end of 1928. These strikes reached alarming proportions
  • Government held Communist responsible for this . To contain & crush them government armed itself with Public Safety Ordinance for purpose of deporting subversive elements +  Trade Disputes Act for introduction of Tribunals for settlement of worker’s problems which practically banned strikes (Note: Bhagat Singh hona ne ehna acts de virodh ch bomb suteya si)

Meerut Conspiracy case

  • Communists  were subjected to severe repression by government . In  March 1929 , 32 radical & political Trade Union Activists including three British Communists were arrested on the charge of conspiring against his Majesty’s government under the directions of Communist International . It was alleged that  these Communists wanted to deprive British Monarch his sovereignty over British India by means of general strike & armed uprising
  • Basic aim of government was to behead the Trade Unions of leadership & to isolate Communists from National Movement . Soon it became cause celebre & defence was taken by JL Nehru, MA Ansari & Chagla . Gandhi visited them in jail to express his solidarity .  Speeches of defence in court were carried by newspapers familiarising lakhs of people about Communism . However, Britishers succeeded in one respect ie  growing working class movement was deprived of leadership
    • Later Guided by the resolutions of the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, the Communists broke their connection with the National Congress and declared it to be a class party of the Bourgeoisie. Moreover, the Congress and the bourgeoisie it supposedly represented were declared to have become supporters of imperialism.
    • Congress plans to organize a mass movement around the slogan of Poorna Swaraj were seen as sham efforts to gain influence over the masses by Bourgeois leaders who were working for a compromise with British imperialism . In   1931, the Gandhi-Irwin Pact was described as a proof of the Congress betrayal of Nationalism.

  • 1934 – Communists renewed their militant Trade Union activities . There were strikes at Sholapur , Nagpur & Bombay . Government panicked & finding it difficult to control banned Communist Party in June 1934. But many Communist carried their activities in Congress & newly formed Congress Socialist Party

5. After 1935

  • Indian economy began to improve after 1936 which earlier was suffering due to depression & in 1937, Congress Ministries formed arousing people’s aspirations
  • In 1939, number of strikes went to 406( 156 in 1936)
  • Important development of this period was the attempt made by the leftists and socialists to unite the trade unions and peasant organizations for a collective movement. Indeed it was the phase of the expansion of the trade union movement.

Congress Socialist Party & Socialist parties

  • 1934 (same year when CPI was banned) : after end of Civil Disobedience Movement (CPM), section of Congressmen decided to enter into Legislatures to work for cause of Congress & Gandhi endorsed them. But there was other section who in response to this formed Socialist Party within Congress Organisation to prevent erosion of Revolutionary character
  • Socialists believed in Marxism too but there were differences
    • Socialists owed their allegiance to Congress whereas Communists owed allegiance to Communist International
    • Congress Socialists were Nationalists whereas Communists believed in goal of International Communist Society
  • Attracted by Marxism, Communism and Soviet Union, they did not find themselves in agreement with the prevalent political line of the CPI. Ultimately they came together and formed the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) at Bombay in October 1934 under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Narendra Dev and Minoo Masani with Sampurnananda as first President

Their Ideology (from Their Constitution)

  1. To work for acceptance of Congress Socialist Party programme by INC
  2. To organise workers & peasants for their own economic upliftment as well as for carrying on the movement for achievement of Independence & Socialism
  3. Organise Youth Leagues, Woman’s Organisation & Voluntary Organistions & secure their support for CSP Programme
  4. To resist any negotiations with British government on Constitutional issues

They adopted separate program for

Workers Freedom to form Trade Unions
– Right to go on Strike
Living wages
40 Hours of Work a week
Insurance against unemployment, sickness & accident
Peasants – Abolition of Landlordism
Encouragement of Cooperative Farming
Exemption from rents & taxes on uneconomical farms
Reduction of land revenue
Abolition of feudal levies

Although now they were working with Bourgeois to achieve  Independence but their ultimate aim was formation of Socialist Society in India . CSP from beginning assigned itself with task of transforming Congress & strengthening it – in both ideological & organisational sense

For attainment of twin objectives of Socialism & Freedom they followed three lines of activities

  • Inside the Congress,  they worked out anti-imperialist and nationalist programmes of the Congress as Congressmen
  • Outside the Congress,  they mobilised the workers, peasants, students, intelligentsia and women for the cause of socialism
  • They also sought to integrate the above two lines of activities.

Their Impact

  • Mixed Reaction among  Congressmen
Gandhi Rejected their idea of class war. Gandhi did not believe in the necessity of the abolition of Princely order, Zamindari and Capitalism. He wanted to bring about a change of heart in the princes, zamindars and capitalists so that instead of considering themselves the owners of the states, zamindars and factories they should behave as the trustees for their subjects, tenants and workers.
Left Congressmen Like Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose welcomed the formation of the Congress Socialist Party, although neither Nehru nor Bose joined the party.
  • 1936 – three Socialists Narendra Dev , JP & Achyut Patwardhan inducted into Congress Working Committee . It was sure that Socialist agendas started to make up in Congress policies
  • Politically & ideologically they were able to give congress a left leaning .  Faizpur session adopted an agrarian programme, containing such items as reduction of revenue, abolition of feudal dues and levies, introduction of cooperative farming, living wage for the agrarian labourers and formation of peasant unions
  • Impact on Congress organisationally- 1/3rd votes in All India Congress Committee were of left & Nehru & Bose elected as President from 1936 to 1939 because of them
  • Congress Socialists played an important role in the Kisan (peasant) movement. Through the efforts of Prof. N.G. Ranga, Indulal Yagnik, and Swami Sahajanand Saraswati the All-India Kisan Sabha was organised in  1936.
  • Congress Socialists changed the Congress Party’s policy from aloofness to closer involvement in the affairs of Princely states. The Congress socialist activists also took part in the democratic movements of the people in the princely states against their autocratic rulers.

Failure of these movements

Despite the fact that the Left cadres were among the most courageous, militant & sacrificing of freedom fighters, the Left failed in the basic task it had taken upon itself— to establish the hegemony of socialist ideas & parties over the national movement. It also failed to make good the promise it held out in the 1930s. This is, in fact, a major enigma for the historian & reason for this can be

  • Left invariably fought the dominant Congress leadership on wrong issues. It chose to fight not on questions of ideology but on methods of struggle and on tactics.
  • Left also failed to make a deep study of Indian reality. With the exception of Jawaharlal Nehru, the Left saw the dominant Congress leadership as bourgeois , its policy of negotiations as working towards a compromise with imperialism & any resort to constitutional work as a step towards the ‘abandonment of the struggle for independence’
  • It saw all efforts to guide the national movement in a disciplined manner as imposing restrictions on the movement. It constantly counterposed armed struggle to non- violence as a superior form and method of struggle, rather than concentrating on the nature of mass involvement and mobilization and ideology. It was convinced that the masses were ever ready for struggles in any form if only the leaders were willing to initiate them.
  • Left parties, groups and individuals failed to work unitedly except for short periods. Nehru and Bose could not work together for long and bickered publicly in 1939. Nehru and the Socialists could not coordinate their politics. Bose and Socialists drifted apart after 1939.

Brief Sketches of Socialists

1 . JayaPrakash (JP)

  • Born in 1902 in Bihar
  • 1921 : Discontinued his study at Patna College to participate in NCM
  • After that, he went to US for receiving University Education & did physical work to finance himself . There he came in contact with Communists & became marxist
  • When he came back, he saw Communists in India were taking orders from Moscow . Although he appreciated Bolshevik Revolution but didn’t like this & joined Congress
  • 1930 : was made President of Congress Labour Research Department
  • Main role in formation of CSP

2. Ashok Mehta

  • Born in 1912 at Sholapur to Prominent Gujarati Writer
  • Educated at Bombay University
  • Joined CDM & jailed at Nasik
  • For number of years he edited CSP journal = CONGRESS SOCIALIST

3. Dr Ram Manohar Lohia

  • Born in nationalist Marwari family in 1910
  • Educated at BHU, Calcutta University & Berlin Uni in Political economy
  • On his return Nehru made him incharge of Foreign Affairs
  • He was influenced by Social Democratic Ideas of West & Gandhian ideas & didn’t believe in Marxism or Communism
  • Founded journal CONGRESS SOCIALIST

Jawahar Lal Nehru & Socialism

  • JL Nehru imparted socialist vision to national movement
  • Nehru propagated the ideas of socialism and declared that political freedom would become meaningful only if it led to the economic emancipation of the masses
  • He used his enforced leisure in jail, during 1922- 23, to read widely on the history of the Russian and other revolutions.
  • In 1927 , he  went to Switzerland for treatment of his ailing wife & came in contact with various socialist leaders . Then he was invited to attend International Congress against Colonial Oppression and Imperialism, held at Brussels, and came into contact with communists and anti-colonial fighters from all over the world . After exchange of views, he realised that how the development of European capitalism, which required raw materials for industrial production and extensive markets for the finished goods, led to imperialism, and how European capitalism had fattened on the exploitation of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
  • Same year he visited the Soviet Union and was deeply impressed by the new socialist society
  • He came to conclusion that exploiters have their native allies in form of landlords & industrialists & even if country is freed from  Britishers those oppressors would keep on oppressing . Hence, national emancipation of colonies also included emancipation of masses
  • In 1927 , whole Simon Commission episode started . When Nehru Committee report discussions were held, JL Nehru challenged attainment of Swaraj ie Dominion status  as goal  & demanded  complete independence . He was the first to move resolution in Madras session of 1927 demanding Real independence instead of mirage of  dominion status
  • 1928, Jawaharlal joined hands with Subhas to organize the Independence for India League to fight for complete independence and ‘a socialist revision of the economic structure of society.’
  • Lahore Session 1929 speech – “I am a socialist and a republican, and am no believer in kings and princes, or in the order which produces the modern kings of industry, who have a greater power over the lives and fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the old feudal aristocracy.’ India, he said, would have to adopt a full ‘socialist programme’ if she was ‘to end her poverty and inequality.”
  • He criticized Gandhi for refusing to recognize the conflict of classes, for preaching harmony among the exploiters and the exploited, and for putting forward the theories of trusteeship by the capitalists and landlords.
  • But Nehru’s commitment to Socialism was given within a framework that recognized the primacy of the political, anti- imperialist struggle so long as India was ruled by the foreigner . Nehru, therefore, did not favour the creation of an organization independent of or separate from the Congress or making a break with Gandhi and the right-wing of the Congress. The task was to influence and transform the Congress as a whole in a socialist direction.

Leave a Comment