The Russian Revolution unleashed a process of social change and emancipation of the lower strata of people in different parts of the world. Termed as the first revolution of workers and downtrodden people under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and following the ideology of Marxism and Socialism, the Russian Revolution became a model for the colonial subjects of British India. A hundred years after the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 (November 7 according to the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time) we can now analyse its implications on the subcontinent.
The implications of the Russian Revolution on the subcontinent were three-fold. First, it posed a serious challenge to colonial British rule because of the zeal it spurred for emancipation from imperial subjugation. Second, it also challenged the exploitive classes, including the bourgeoisie of the subcontinent, as the peasants and workers found the appeal of socialism and communism a source of their emancipation from the exploitation at the hands of landowners and capitalists. Third, the Revolution became a source of organising the peasants and workers of South Asia against the bourgeoisie/feudal-dominated elite class of the newly-independent countries of India and Pakistan.
The subcontinent in the early 20th century was ripe for social change and emancipation because of the partition of Bengal and its annulment, the launch of the Khilafat Movement and the gradual erosion of British authority in the region. The First World War exposed the British capacity and capability to sustain their colonial rule in the subcontinent despite several decades of direct rule after the 1857 war of independence.
How the 20th century Bolshevik Revolution influenced the subcontinent’s struggle for freedom
At the time of the Russian Revolution, the subcontinent faced four major realities:
First, a new elite class, composed of those Indians who had gone abroad to seek higher education in the United Kingdom and other centres of learning in Europe, was emerging. On their return, they brought with them ideas of freedom, democracy, liberalism and socialism, but realised the contradiction in the European thought process because it encompassed ideas of enlightenment, secularism and democracy but the people of the subcontinent neither had the freedom of expression nor control over their resources.
The new elite class was also inclined towards ideas propagated by the leaders of the Russian Revolution for the decolonisation of imperial territories. In fact, the freedom movement in the subcontinent was not only launched by the Congress and the Muslim League, but also by other groups inspired by the Russian Revolution who had developed their contacts with the Bolshevik regime.
Second, whereas the educated Indian elites were exposed to the ideas of democracy, liberalism, nationalism, secularism and socialism, their country was vulnerable to the centuries-old system of caste, creed, communal and religious contradictions. Social and economic backwardness had deep roots in Indian society as the overwhelming majority of people remained illiterate and poor. In fact, the East Indian Company studied internal contradictions within the local population for decades to exploit these for the imposition of their rule. The British rightly calculated that because of these internal contradictions, the threat of a communist or socialist revolution in India was not serious.
Third, at the time of the Russian Revolution, the proletariat class, which could have been a driving force for launching a revolutionary movement, was quite weak. Likewise, the middle-class and intelligentsia — which were essential for raising political consciousness — were also less noticeable. The Indian social fabric at the time of Russian Revolution was composed of peasants and farmers along with pockets of bourgeois segments of society. Therefore, while the Russian revolution was a source of inspiration for a section of the Indian elite and the masses, it was not possible to effectively challenge British rule by launching a revolutionary movement on the pattern of the Bolshevik Revolution. The First World War had, however, weakened the British grip over power in the subcontinent and the reforms introduced for empowering native Indians in governance were an indication of their fragile power in what was termed as the strongest colony in the world.
Finally, a fundamental reality which existed in the region at the time pertained to the religious divide and the emerging movement for a separate homeland for Indian Muslims. The partition of the subcontinent on religious grounds, which became a major demand of Muslim League, meant the weakening of the communist movement. Nevertheless, the great October Revolution made inroads in the religiously and ethnically-fragmented Indian society and with the passage of time, the Communist Party of India (CPI) emerged as a force representing the lower strata of society.
Other realities prevailing in the subcontinent at the time were also quite noticeable. India was a socially stratified society and the only way, the subcontinent could rid itself of colonial rule was by changing its societal conditions and by mitigating the level of stratification which existed in every nook and corner of the country.
Since December 26, 1925, when the CPI was founded in Kanpur, till Partition in August 1947, the party was able to establish its network in both rural and urban areas particularly in Bengal. The British, knowing that the Russian revolution had galvanised the working class throughout India against the capitalist, feudalistic, colonial and imperial systems, began to divide the proletariat by promoting communal and religious feelings. The two major parties at that time namely the Indian National Congress (INC) and Muslim League also pursued an anti-Communist drive by depicting communists as godless and enemies of religion. The bourgeoisie characteristics of the Congress and Muslim League were bound to conflict with the communists as both knew that the Indian peasants and workers would side with forces striving to protect the rights of the downtrodden. The nexus between the British imperial crown and bourgeoisie/feudal-oriented parties was natural, with a common purpose to contain the rise of communism in the subcontinent.
At the time of the Russian Revolution, the proletariat class, which could have been a driving force for launching a revolutionary movement, was quite weak.
Unlike Western Europe where the age of enlightenment during the 17th and 18th centuries unleashed the process of moderation, modernisation and emancipation of people from the clutches of religious dogmatism and exploitation, there was no such process in the subcontinent. An overwhelming majority of the Indian population lived in acute social backwardness, exploitated by landed aristocracy and nobility. Furthermore, the nexus between the clergy and the feudals and the British colonial masters deepened the level of conservatism. In such an environment, the emergence of a progressive and secular thought process was inconceivable. Yet, the ideas of democracy, enlightenment, liberalism and secularism reached India through the Western-educated elite who found their own homeland submerged under caste, communal, social and economic stratification. Inspiration from the Russian Revolution was crucial and critical in creating a dent in the centuries-old system of exploitation and the retrogressive way of life.
Three major implications of the Russian Revolution on the progressive and secular thought process in South Asia can be gauged. First, the awareness that clergy and state should be separate, and religion must not be allowed to be used for the exploitation of people, got an impetus after the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.
Indian society was, however, not ready to separate state and religion. Yet the ideology of secularism, which had its roots in Europe particularly after the 1648 treaty of Westphalia (which brought an end to the Thirty Year War), was able to influence India’s newly educated class and those who were educated at Western universities. The CPI emerged as the icon of a progressive and secular thought process in British India but the INC, which the Muslim League alleged to have a Hindu tilt, also called for a secular mode of governance. A progressive approach and thought meant a society where enlightenment and a forward-looking approach — instead of a backward and retrogressive thinking — would help reduce the level of social backwardness and conservative way of life.
Second, the clash between the INC and the CPI for the support of the proletariat for the freedom struggle was noticeable. Both wanted India to be a progressive and secular state but with different ideas. Therefore, as P.C. Joshi in his article, “Gandhi-Nehru Tradition and Indian Secularism” (published in Mainstream, Vol. XLV, No. 48, November 25, 2007) rightly points out, “The promoter of the secular idea in India was thus not the colonial power-elite; the pioneers of the secular ideal were the anti-colonial sections of the Indian elite, which derived inspiration from modern Western thought, especially from the English industrial and French political revolutions. The secularisation process also received stimulus from the Indian religious reformation pioneered by Swami Vivekananda, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and many others.”
Third, the Russian revolution called for getting rid of symbols of backwardness such as the subjugation of women and minorities. Like the subcontinent, Russia was also not an industrialised society, but because of its geographical proximity with Europe, it was able to unleash the process of modernisation. Unlike India, Russia was not under a severe caste and communal system, and the abolishment of serfdom in 1861 helped transform Russia from a feudal to a modern and industrial society. Yet, the spread of a progressive and secular thought process remained undeterred from the nexus of feudal, clergy, capitalist and bourgeoisie classes.
Progressive and secular thoughts reached the subcontinent in three ways: First, through members of the communist party and their networking with workers, peasants and other downtrodden segments of society. Meetings of the CPI and other socialist, left-wing groups also promoted discourse to enlighten the minds of people and challenged exploitation on the basis of religion.
Second, the literature reaching the subcontinent from the USSR (in translated form) tried to motivate the disempowered and marginalised sections of society for social and political change. Later, after the emergence of India, Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as new states in 1947-1948, literature from the Soviet embassy and consulates also began to be distributed to a cross-section of the society, albeit via secret agencies. Third, an alternative thinking, which was neither pro-religious nor pro-Western, began to take shape following the Great October Revolution. Such thinking challenged the centuries-old culture of dogmatism, conservatism and orthodoxy on the basis of religious and so-called social and cultural values.
The Great October Revolution had a significant contribution in generating awareness among the masses about the deep-rooted system of exploitation. The Russian revolution provided a ray of hope to the millions of subjugated people who were provided with a sense of direction in order to emancipate themselves from the clutches of feudals, capitalists, the bourgeoisie and the clergy.
The re-emergence of the ideals of communism as a dominant ideology unlikely as it may sound, can certainly play a significant role in dealing with the menace of religious extremism. The misuse of religion for political and personal reasons is not possible in a situation when people have a choice in the form of a communist and socialist mode of governance. Liberal and so-called democratic parties cannot deal with the forces of religious extremism because their ideology lacks the strength to challenge those who use religion for political purposes. Effectively coping with the challenge of religious fanaticism and terrorism requires a stronger commitment to ideological moorings.
The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi.
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 3rd, 2017