The recently elected Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury has his work cut out for him. His party’s electoral fortunes have plunged greatly in the past decade and, to revive them, Yechury declared that one of the strategies he is considering is a merger of the CPI-M and the Communist Party of India.

To the layperson, the finer doctrinal debates between communists can be confusing, even exasperating. Just to take nomenclature, the two largest communist parties in India have near identical names, the only difference being a parenthetical Marxist – this even when both claim to be Marxist in ideology. This communist tendency to fission was famously parodied in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, as the Judaean People’s Front bitterly criticised the People’s Front of Judaea, the Judaean Popular People’s Front and the one-man Popular Front of Judaea for being “splitters”.

Nevertheless, on the inside, these communist debates are hard fought and have had an impact on Indian politics. As the CPI-M now considers merging with its mother party, the CPI, it would be interesting to look back at the circumstances that led to their split more than 50 years back.

Sino-Soviet split and anti-Congressism

One of the main drivers of the Indian communist split lay in the falling out of the Soviet Union and China, the two largest communist powers of the time, after the death of Stalin in 1953. The Chinese objected to some USSR policy positions that Mao Zedong thought were not Left enough. The Soviets, by that time, had accepted “peaceful coexistence” with the West as a diplomatic aim and advocated using democratic means to spread communism in other countries. The Chinese, denouncing the Soviets as “revisionists”, spoke of promoting a “class war” and fighting the West militarily. So bitter was this disagreement that it led to a border conflict between China and the USSR in 1969.

The fallouts of this were felt by the communist movement around the world, as both the USSR and China promoted communists who would follow their line. In India, at the time, the Communist Party looked to the USSR for inspiration, but by the late 1950s a definite pro-China sub-group had formed, echoing many of the Chinese policy positions.

The other factor roiling the Communist Party of India was the attitude towards the Congress. The communists were confused about how to treat the Congress, which was at once a mass movement and a “reactionary bourgeoisie” party. For the first 10 years after the CPI was formed, till 1935, the CPI had no truck with it. From then on, under general secretary PC Joshi, the communists decided to work with the Congress as part of its socialist pressure group.

Matters changed abruptly in 1947, as the CPI declared India’s independence/Congress rule to be a lie and launched an armed struggle against the state. But by 1951, it had changed its mind again, deciding to give up armed struggle once and for all and contest the first general election of 1952, where it did quite well, becoming the second largest party in Parliament. By the late-1950s, the CPI had settled comfortably into India’s parliamentary democracy and believed that the way to bring about communism in the country was to cooperate with the left wing of the Congress.

Later on, its pro-Congress attitude, prodded on by warm Soviet-India relations, would become even cosier, sometime embarrassingly so. During the Emergency, the CPI was one of the few parties to support Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This softening towards the “bourgeoisie” Congress was disliked by the more radical sections of the united CPI, which, following the Chinese model, wanted to stress on peasant mass movements.

1962 Indo-China War

These trends – anti-Congressism and the Sino-Soviet split – came together during the Indo-China War of 1962 to create a flashpoint for the communists. At the time, the conservative section of the CPI put its full weight behind the Nehru government. The radical wing of the party, wrote historian Bipin Chandra, “while opposing the Chinese stand on the question of the India-China frontiers also opposed the unqualified support to the Nehru government because of its class character”. The Nehru government did not take kindly to this and jailed the communist dissenters for most of 1962 and ’63.

By 1964, the differences among the communists had become irreconcilable. The parting of ways of the conservative and radical factions was helped by the fact that the Sino-Soviet split was out in the open now. During the CPI’s National Council meeting that year in Delhi, 32 members famously walked out to form the “real communist party”. Later on, in a meeting in Calcutta, they founded the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

As it turned out, the CPI-M was vindicated electorally. Almost immediately, they became the main communist party in India, eclipsing the parent party in the left bastions of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.

Naxalites split

Even this, however, was not enough for some of the people who had split from the CPI in 1964. For them, now the CPI-M wasn’t Left enough. Given that the CPI-M had formed the government in West Bengal as part of the United Front in 1967 (Bengal’s first non-Congress government) and was making no moves towards an armed revolution, these radicals accused it of betraying the communist cause. Charu Mazumdar, who would later on in 1969 lead the split to form the Communist Part of India (Marxist-Leninist), now accused the CPI-M of “revisionism” and of choosing the “path of class collaboration”. In 1967, Mazumdar would walk the talk and lead violent attacks in Naxalbari in North Bengal, hoping to replicate the communist revolution in China. Ironically, now the CPI-M took to calling them blindly pro-Chinese, using a label applied to them just five years back. Jyoti Basu writes in his memoirs:
“They said they were followers of Mao and raised the slogan, 'China’s chairman is our chairman’. Forgetting everything else that the country stood for, they followed the China model with disastrous consequences which had no relation to Marxist philosophy.”

Mazumdar’s revolution did not happen and he was soon captured and killed, as the West Bengal police, under the CPI-M-led United Front government, launched a brutal crackdown. However, that act did launch what is today known at the Naxalite or Maoist movement.

In spite of this constant factionalism, the parliamentary communists have managed to maintain a fair amount of electoral unity ever since. The CPI-M, CPI and other smaller parties have set up and maintained stable coalitions in Bengal, Kerala and Tripura for the past five decades.

If the CPI-M and CPI merge, how much of an impact they will have electorally remains to be seen. The relevance of communism in a post-USSR world is often dismissed. Of course, as a counter to that, there is the fact that the CPI-M’s best ever Lok Sabha performance came 15 years after the Berlin Wall fell, showing that rumours of the death of the Left maybe greatly exaggerated. Even while doctrinaire communism might have seen its last, a polity without the left in a country as poor as India might not be probable.