The Bourgeois Revolution in India, Part 2


In the last section of my essay on the bourgeois revolution in India, I gave some account of the early independence movement, and thereafter traced its development alongside that of Marxism. The early Comintern developed a blueprint for Communists attempting to strategize around nationalist demands in colonial situations, and this blueprint was developed with specific reference to the situation of India. I then suggested the different ways in which this blueprint was adopted by the Stalinist CPI from its founding in 1930 until independence, and by the 4th International led by Leon Trotsky.


Marxist Perspectives: The International Socialist Tradition (1963-present)

In this section, I want to attempt several different things. First, to continue with Cliff as he departed from orthodox Trotskyism, while at the same time preserving the insight of Trotsky for the current world situation. For our purposes, this discussion will be centered around a discussion of his brilliant article, “Deflected Permanent Revolution.”

At the same time, I will try to unite his insights with those of his comrades John Rees, writing on the democratic revolution and the socialist revolution, and Alex Callinicos, who is largely responsible for the most coherent Marxist viewpoint on bourgeois revolution. Finally, I will deal with Neil Davidson, whose book on bourgeois revolution is the most important book on the subject to date. I will attempt, based on the previous discussion, to explain what the contributions of Cliff, Rees, Callinicos and Davidson help us to understand about Indian independence, as well as what they do not.

“Deflected Permanent Revolution,” written in 1963 for International Socialism, is an outstanding contribution to postwar Marxism. Cliff, observing that Trotsky’s prediction of socialism or barbarism by war’s end had been invalidated, set out to reconstruct the theory of permanent revolution on this basis. Western capitalism had stabilized, as had Stalinism, regarded by Cliff and his few co-thinkers as a form of state capitalism.

Nevertheless, the world situation had changed substantially outside the spheres of the great powers. In China and Cuba, social revolutions had taken place that produced societies closely resembling that of the Stalinist USSR. Similarly, countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and succeeded in separating themselves from imperialism through mass freedom movements – these produced state capitalism in some places, and mixed economies in others. Trotsky had clearly been wrong when he expected that the only way to overthrow imperialism was a socialist revolution led by the working class.

This is not a picture of Tony Cliff.

This is not a picture of Tony Cliff.

Why was Trotsky wrong? Cliff wrote that objective conditions in the colonial world that Trotsky could not have foreseen had blocked the development of working-class consciousness, the subjective condition for a socialist revolution. This had to do with colonial repression as much as the disorganization foisted on the labor movement by a semi-urban, semi-rural economy that imperialism had failed to develop beyond its own immediate profit interests.

Millions of workers in the developing world, wrote Cliff, only worked for a wage part of the year with the goal of gaining enough money to maintain subsistence in their rural homes, to which they returned as farmers. They still identified as peasants rather than workers, which blocked the development of a coherent trade-union movement as the precursor to class-consciousness.

Trade unions that did develop ran up against the obstacles of Stalinism and nationalism. Organizers did not rise organically from the workers, but came from the left-leaning nationalist and Stalinist groups outside the class. Workers became dependent on these organizers to solve their problems, rather than developing a sense of class solidarity that could be employed in struggles with the bosses. Here, Cliff is referring explicitly to the Indian case.

So the working class in these countries was incapable of putting an end to imperialism. However, the crisis of imperialism in its colonial and semi-colonial possessions made revolutionary change inevitable. Cliff proposed that in this situation, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia could take revolutionary agency. The colonial intellectuals were the ones tasked with some of the running of their countries, but their advancement was blocked by imperialism, at which they felt resentful.

Being of high education, they simultaneously felt a deep connection to their colonized nation and contempt toward its lower classes, making them in their opinion the nation’s natural representatives. In a colonial crisis and with the support of mass movements of the peasantry, they could overthrow imperialism in their countries, but engineer systems that would contain further development within the limits set by capitalism. As such, the permanent revolution Trotsky had proposed was deflected in the absence of a revolutionary proletariat toward the establishment of state capitalism (Cliff 1963).

Though Cliff wrote of China and Cuba primarily, he intended his article as a sketch of developments broadly explaining all the successful anti-colonial movements – particularly, the Free Officers in Egypt and the Congress in India. In this respect, his thesis was certainly a step forward. Though Cliff is much maligned by orthodox Trotskyists, he was, I think, quite orthodox in his approach. He salvaged Trotsky’s permanent revolution in the only way possible. The only alternative would be to pretend that real independence for these countries had not taken place, a view many Trotskyists indeed took.

However, broad strokes only get us so far. There are similarities between China, Cuba, Egypt, and India that are summed up well by Cliff’s article, but also vast differences between them. The Stalinist intelligentsia leading a mass peasant insurgency to overthrow a corrupt landlord regime (China) is not the same as a relatively small band of left-nationalist guerrillas taking power in a deep crisis and with worker and peasant passivity (Cuba). Nor is a coup by young nationalist officers against a decrepit semicolonial state (Egypt) the same as a mass movement of workers and peasants with a stable middle-class leadership toppling the strongest colonial state the world has ever known (India).

Cliff regarded China and Cuba as “the classic, the purest, and most extreme cases” of deflected permanent revolution, while India, Egypt, Algeria and Ghana among others were “deviations from the norm.” This is understandable in the terms of classical Marxism, which presents the bourgeois revolutions similarly. The Great French Revolution of 1789 is “the classic, purest and most extreme case” of bourgeois revolution because of its rapid development beyond the limits of the old order based on a mass democratic upsurge.My objection to Cliff’s formulation is similar to an objection to those conceptions of traditional Marxism that have France as the exemplar of bourgeois revolution. If the aim is to cement the dominance of the anti-colonial intelligentsia and forestall a revolution from below, isn’t one path that accomplishes this just as effective as another? If the Indian middle class could accomplish this without establishing full state capitalism, then why should theirs be considered a “deviation” – certainly a huge deviation considering India’s size and importance in terms of the developments Cliff is dealing with.

One other objection: in 1947 Cliff had written, correctly, that the Congress was the representative of the Indian bourgeoisie. In “Deflected Permanent Revolution,” however, it is the intelligentsia, rather than the bourgeoisie, which leads the way in the anti-colonial revolutions. This should be seen as an attempt to rescue Trotsky’s idea that the bourgeoisie of colonized nations remained weak and vacillating, scared by resistance from below and compromising with imperialism wherever possible. The anti-colonial revolutions were pursued against, rather than with, the bourgeoisie.

In India, however, this was clearly not the case. There is a well-documented history of Indian capitalists supporting the Congress. Several leading industrialists became devotees of Gandhi. His statements that workers should seek moral purity rather than higher wages perfectly suited them. Gandhi could not have survived as a leader – or the Congress as an organization – without their generous support. Because of the peculiarities of the Indian transition to capitalism which Cliff perceived so acutely, the bourgeoisie had no reason to be afraid of a working-class and peasant insurgency a la Russia in 1917 (the major exception, of course, would be the Naval Mutiny of 1945). But the leadership of the Indian bourgeoisie in the freedom struggle is unaccounted for by Cliff. Further contributions in his tradition would, however, correct this oversight.

Very quickly, I want to consider one such contribution before I move on to what I believe is of more weight. John Rees’ article “From the Democratic Revolution to the Socialist Revolution” is a major reexamination of the Marxist concept of the relationship of democracy to socialism, and the telescoping of democratic and socialist demands, since Lenin and Trotsky a key assumption of Marxism.

Rees’ article covers revolutions over the entire modern era. His analysis of each of them is fascinating, but does not bear repetition here. The thrust of the piece is an attempt to understand revolutions that, while they overthrew undemocratic regimes, did not end in a socialist transformation, instead stopping short at bourgeois democracy. When Rees wrote the article in 1999, there were many examples of this near to hand: the Eastern European revolutions of 1989-92, the end of apartheid South Africa in 1993, and the Indonesian revolution of 1997. We might now add Venezuela in 2002 and ongoing, Bolivia in 2004, and the Arab revolutions of 2011 – though the outcome of these remains very much contested as I write.

What Rees proposes is a renovation of Marx’s concept of a political revolution versus a social revolution. While revolutionary socialists assert the link between democratic demands and socialist demands, such a link does not have to exist in practice. In a revolutionary ferment, sections of the bourgeoisie are perfectly capable of transforming the state to be more democratic in appearance at the same time they strive to maintain their economic dominance. In fact, doing the one assists in the other. Rees writes of Indonesia:

The elections, which there had been plans to delay, were called for June 1999… The People’s Democratic Party (PRD), the party furthest left on the Indonesian political spectrum, was legalised and allowed to stand in elections, although some of its leading figures remain behind bars…

But the regime did not just trust the outcome of the elections to pro-democratic sentiment. It has reshaped the armed forces, giving the police a separate structure it did not have before. It recruited hundreds of thousands of ‘civilian militia’, armed with shields and bamboo canes, and under military command. And it continued to spread religious and ethnic conflict through agents provocateurs. The aim is not to totally suppress the movement in the Suharto manner, but to keep it within the bounds of the election process and so destroy the possibility of a revolutionary alternative arising among the mass of the population, a fear common in ruling circles at the start of 1999…

The Indonesian bourgeoisie, including its liberal wing, is in an analogous position to the bourgeoisie that Marx described in 1848. It is even now ‘grumbling at those above, trembling at those below’… But the Indonesian liberal bourgeoisie is not in this condition because it is tied to an old feudal order by its late development, but because it is tied to an already developed capitalist state, which they want to reform but not to overthrow. They are also confronted by a working class of far greater size than that which so terrified the German bourgeoisie in 1848.

The Indonesian student movement and the left have been caught off guard by these developments… they expected the state to resist any such change and assumed that it would have to be fought for in a ‘proper’ democratic revolution.” (Rees 1999).

This is, in continuation of Cliff’s work, a further step away from orthodox Trotskyist assumptions. Revolutions invariably begin with democratic demands, but they will also end with them if revolutionaries are not prepared to create the link between democracy and socialism in practice. A social revolution can be deflected into a political revolution – and, as we see in the examples he lists as well as others like Portugal in 1973 and Iran in 1979, all of them have been in some way or another.

So far as I know, this is the only famous painting with the phrase "bourgeois revolution" in the title.

So far as I know, this is the only famous painting with the phrase “bourgeois revolution” in the title.

This can help us to understand Indian independence as well. Revolutionary movements like them begin with democratic demands, and in India, it began and ended with them. Trotsky forecast a struggle for independence on a socialist basis, but there was no inevitability about this, and indeed it did not emerge. In fact, the Congress took over and reformed the colonial state, rather than smashing it from below. Trotsky and his early followers had excluded this as a possibility. Indian independence was a political revolution – but as we will see, it resembled earlier social revolutions in its consequences.

The third contribution is the article “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism” by Alex Callinicos. Written for the summer 1989 issue of International Socialism commemorating the bicentennial of the Great French Revolution, Callinicos’ article is a major broadside against academic revisionism at the same time as it seeks to reestablish a coherent Marxist concept of bourgeois revolution.

The revolutions of England, France and so on, wrote revisionists, were heavily misinterpreted by Marxists. In the first place, the concept of a bourgeois revolution was incoherent. How could there be a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie directly leading – which we see in none of the classic cases? Furthermore, how could these revolutions establish capitalism when some of these countries were already mostly capitalist (England), failed in their transition (Holland) or did not reach their industrial takeoff until decades afterwards (France)? And how were they “democratic” as Marxists claimed if they took place at the expense of the vast majority?

Callinicos answers all these charges. In his view, the bourgeoisie does not necessarily have to “lead” a bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie is the main beneficiary. But even in the classic cases, many, if not most, capitalists stood aside or even sided with absolutism, as in England and France.

This is linked to another of the charges: Callinicos argues that there is nothing necessarily “democratic” about the bourgeois revolution, thus clearing up a major ambiguity in the Marxist tradition on the subject. The American Civil War, the Prussian unification of Germany, the Italian Risorgimento and the Meiji Restoration in Japan – all of these events were carried out from above.

Bourgeois revolutions, in essence, include any revolution that leads to the establishment of what Callinicos calls an “independent center of capital accumulation.” In the early days of the modern era, capitalism only had tenuous footholds in Western Europe. The Dutch Revolt, English Civil War, and French Revolution therefore, were key in the rise of capitalism as a world system. They overcame feudal obstacles that stood in the way of capitalist development.

Later revolutions would consolidate capitalism in a single country so could compete with previously established powers. The Meiji Restoration was launched in direct response to the threat of Western imperialism. It would establish capitalist relations, in the process transforming Japan into a power capable of competing with the West for colonies and profits. This implantation of capitalist relations by the state was another legitimate form of the bourgeois revolution (Callinicos 1989).

Capitalism by the 19th century was a worldwide system whose progress could not be reversed. But this did not end the era of bourgeois revolution. The bourgeoisie of colonized countries aspired to independent centers of accumulation just as their masters had accomplished for themselves hundreds of years previous. Here Callinicos returns to Cliff’s concept of the deflected permanent revolution. He notes the connection between these events and the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century – the revolutions in China and Cuba among others had cleared the countries of imperialist domination, so they could compete as full partners within the capitalist world system.

This “consequentialist” view of bourgeois revolution was taken up and developed substantially by Neil Davidson his recently published book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? This nearly 800-page tome, which remains lively and fertile throughout, cannot be summarized in this article; I can only give my strongest recommendation that everyone read it for themselves.

Of the connection between bourgeois revolutions and the “deflected permanent revolutions” explored by Callinicos, Davidson argues there is little reason not to consider these events as bourgeois revolutions themselves. Certainly, in cases like that of China in 1927 and Iran in 1979, the permanent revolution was deflected. Other countries, like India, however, did not have the same possibility of a political revolution transforming into a social revolution: there was no working-class revolutionary agent, and therefore, no permanent revolution to deflect (Davidson 2012).

Buy, read, and meditate on this book.

Buy, read, and meditate on this book.

What happened in countries like India, he suggests, is very much similar to the normal path of capitalist development taken earlier in Europe. In both of these, a bourgeoisie develops in the interstices of a system that blocks it from transforming itself into a ruling class. So a revolution is accomplished to remove those barriers, leading to either the bourgeoisie constituting itself as the ruling class or a new bourgeoisie forming out of the middle-class intelligentsia that led the revolution. In either case, the bourgeoisie becomes an independent player on the world stage.

But there is an important difference between bourgeois revolutions taking place before and after the establishment of capitalism worldwide. Before this point, revolutionaries were forced to overcome the barriers of feudalism through force, which explains to a certain extent the mass character of the revolutions in Holland, England, France, and perhaps the United States.

But after the worldwide transition to capitalism was on its way, its achievements were there to be adopted by feudal or tributary states, as happened in Japan. Or a state existing over already recognizably capitalist societies could be reformed from above to eliminate obstacles to their full development as independent players within the system, as happened in Canada. Capitalism had been introduced through the banners of mass, democratic social revolutions. But after the turning point, they could stop at being political revolutions, as capitalism as a social system was already well entrenched.

Davidson is correct to link anti-colonial revolutions with the previous bourgeois revolutions: both, as we have seen, took various paths, from above and from below. Some mobilized the masses to smash the previous state, while others accomplished their goals through a military effort followed by intensive reforms.

In this respect there is little to differentiate India, China, Cuba and Egypt in the twentieth century from France, the United States, Italy and Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth. All of them were revolutions that established a new social order with the same goal: independent capitalist accumulation.

We can see the implications of this analysis for Indian independence pretty clearly. It was a bourgeois political revolution. The nascent Indian bourgeoisie replaced the British as the ruling class, and the state was reformed to make India an independent center of accumulation as well as to enshrine bourgeois democracy. But the process ended there.

Gandhi as a Bourgeois Revolutionary

The independence movement, therefore, succeeded in freeing India from Britain. India became a capitalist power in its own right, pursuing policies independent of both main power blocs.

Its course to modernity was, of course, punctuated by many fits and starts. In the Nehru era, a significant attempt was made to establish industry through import-substitution in a state capitalist model. This effort was successful up to a point, but failed to guarantee the ruling class sufficient profits and incentive to invest. After this, India was opened to the global market beginning in the 1980s (Chibber 2003). But regardless, an independent center of capital accumulation was established.

Today, India is a capitalist power of global significance. Not only did its economy boom after the transition away from state capitalism, but its bourgeoisie also became assertive and predatory on the international market. The largest steel company in the world today is an Indian company, acquired from British and other hostile European interests. Such has led to the slogan “India Shining,” put forward by the BJP government of 1998-2004.

At the political end, the Indian state is well on the way to becoming an imperialist power in its own right. It flexed its muscles by assisting Sri Lanka in ending the Tamil national liberation struggle, it maintains a protectorate over Bhutan and a cool hostility toward developments in Nepal, while it bolsters the Burmese junta against China. We can already see hints of a major realignment that will bring the United States and India closer together, leaving out its eternal rival, Pakistan. These things make little sense without an understanding of the victorious development of Indian capital after 1947.

To elucidate this process somewhat more, I will spend the last part of this article focusing on M.K. Gandhi, the eccentric, mystical and dictatorial commander of what I consider to be the bourgeois revolution in India. If a king is in essence a relationship between people, in which “the interests and prejudices of millions of people are refracted through his person,” (Trotsky 1971) then we should not hesitate to analyze a leader of such stature as Gandhi from a similar perspective. We may find out a lot about the social relations of India’s bourgeois revolution by analyzing him.

Unfortunately, Gandhi is very poorly understood by the left. This was true in his own time. Depending on the period, Stalinists either looked to him as a genuine representative of the nationalist and democratic demands of the Indian masses, or as a traitor who was bound up with British imperialism. Trotskyists as we have seen took the second line exclusively. One major historian of Indian socialism writes of him as a “British spy and saboteur of Indian interests” (Chowdhury 2007). In one respect it is refreshing to be reminded that Gandhi’s personality cult is not unchallenged in India. But such a view, I think, blocks real understanding of his role.


Yeah… I have no words.

The left in the United States, where I am based, has similarly spilled much ink over the years reviling Gandhi. This is understandable. While Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence was a formative influence on progressive struggles including the early black civil rights and anti-war movements in this country (Isserman 1993), in more recent times, his often-quoted line that we should “be the change we want to see in the world” has become a justification for passivity and identity politics. Any revolutionary organization can and should draw a sharp line between socialism and Gandhism.

One article from the International Socialist Review puts it like this:

Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence, whose moral force propelled several mass movements forward in their initial phases, repeatedly held back the struggles at key moments. As a result, privileged groups in the urban centers and countryside were able to detach the struggle for political independence from the struggle for radical social change–and thus thwarted Gandhi’s own goals of social justice. The British were gone, but the bureaucracy and police they built up still functioned with little change–and continued to repress workers’ and peasants’ uprisings. Gandhi’s will had been strong, but class forces proved stronger.

And Gandhi never promoted the class force–workers–that could have helped him in his final struggle to unite Hindus and Muslims. Only class struggle could have achieved what Gandhi’s purely moral mission attempted.

The movement didn’t have to turn out in such a mess. Potentially revolutionary situations existed in the periods 1919-22 and 1946-47, but no mass party with revolutionary goals had been forged to steer the movements to victory (Moradian and Whitehouse 2000).

This is a well-put, concise and fairly representative statement on Gandhi’s legacy from the left. I must not be misunderstood: it is incredibly important to reject neo-Gandhian politics. But such an attitude should not deter us from a real historical appreciation of the man’s role in Indian history. From this perspective, the article is completely unsatisfactory.

I will start from the terms of the article. Moradian and Whitehouse say that Gandhi’s philosophy “repeatedly held back the struggles at key moments.” He “never promoted” the working class as a force to unite Hindus and Muslims. Class forces “proved stronger” than his struggle for justice.

I find all this somewhat odd. Gandhi was not a revolutionary socialist. He was horrified by united working class action, whether against the British or Indian bosses. He did “hold back the struggle” – but what if there were reasons for holding back these struggles that had nothing to do with Gandhi’s moral philosophy, and everything to do with the objective needs of the independence movement?

He also never accomplished “social justice” – but what if that had not been his goal, or that of the larger movement? He did compromise with the British, but what if he had a legitimate interest in doing so from his perspective? What if he was not the representative of the Indian masses, as all accounts of his “betrayal” assume? What if, in other words, he was a bourgeois revolutionary?

Events like the famous Salt March give context to this. The Salt March and the agitations around it were an incredibly popular struggle in the history of the independence movement, probably the most popular since the early 1920s. With one demonstration, Gandhi managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands of Indians in anti-British action. At the same time, historians on the left have criticized the Salt March because it did not challenge British power directly or cut at Britain’s economic stranglehold.

This is precisely the case. But the Salt March was not intended to challenge British power directly. From the perspective of the nascent Indian ruling class, it was a complete success. It showed the British that the Congress was capable of mobilizing the masses, and that therefore they should take them seriously. They did so, and thereafter would ignore Gandhi’s demands only at their own peril – as when they obstinately refused to accept his most minor demands for autonomy in order to form an anti-fascist alliance with the Congress during World War II. Furthermore, the march did not threaten to radicalize or upset the order overly much, which was exactly what the bourgeoisie wanted. Consequently, Gandhi demobilized the movement. It was no longer necessary.

I will give a further example: Gandhi’s famous confrontation in 1932 with Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the acknowledged leader of the castes formerly known as “untouchables” – he called them Dalits (oppressed), which became a badge of honor. Ambedkar, who was concerned to increase the weight of his own community within Indian politics and the independence movement, had successfully agitated for the reservation of separate Dalit electorates.

Under the electoral system of the Raj, a certain amount of seats on the councils tasked with the running of the state was set aside for different minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, etc. The reserved seats were divided between joint electorates – in these contests, everyone eligible could vote – and closed electorates, in which only members of the community in question could vote.

Gandhi was horrified at this prospect. He announced a fast unto death, a frequently used tool in his political arsenal which, although it was effective when he did it, has become clichéd and performative in contemporary Indian politics. Ambedkar confronted by Gandhi’s moral blackmail agreed to the Poona Pact, which allowed for the reservation of “backward caste” seats but on the principle of joint electorates.

The roots of this argument may seem arcane. But everyone at the time understood what Gandhi had accomplished. The mass Dalit movement led by Ambedkar was a huge potential obstacle to national unity under Congress hegemony. Dalit representatives elected by Dalits would increase Ambedkar’s stake, thus giving more room for his people to contest national unity, which under Congress leadership meant upper-caste domination, discrimination and extreme poverty of the lower castes.


Gandhi with Bose.

A final example: in 1939, Subhash Chandra Bose was elected to be President of the INC, a position elected yearly but which held considerable authority. Bose, who had a background in the militant wing of Indian nationalism, sought to take advantage of the war situation to wage an immediate armed struggle for independence. India could win its independence in alliance with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Such plans were anathema to Gandhi. Not only did they go against his nonviolent convictions, but a militant struggle with the left-wing Bose as its leader could possibly undermine his own position within the Congress if the movement was perceived as successful. Gandhi held off Bose with complaints that Congress as an organization was not ready for an all-out militant struggle. Meanwhile, he worked behind Bose’s back to win over the members of the Working Committee, the body charged with day-to-day policy under the direction of the President. When Bose brought his plans to the committee again, no one supported him and he was forced to resign. Gandhi had marginalized a potential radical threat to his leadership.Understanding Gandhi as a bourgeois revolutionary makes these events more comprehensible. Gandhi wielded power expertly on behalf of the Indian bourgeoisie, which was hegemonic in the nationalist movement. He could mobilize the masses while ensuring for the most part they did not move beyond the narrow needs of this class. Furthermore, he could marginalize threats to bourgeois dominance within the Congress, and either demobilize or emasculate movement outside it which threatened to open the floor to the aspirations of the Indian masses, especially of the backwards castes.

These all make sense much more if we consider that his efforts were to establish Indian capitalism, rather than merely the morals of an eccentric. Indeed, Gandhi was recognized by all his contemporaries, whether friends or enemies, as an exceedingly clever politician in addition to being a brilliant strategist and organizer.

Two major objections might be made to the idea of Gandhi as a bourgeois revolutionary. I have tried to anticipate them. The first is that Gandhi himself did not see the future India as recognizably capitalist. What he imagined is well known – called Ram-raj (rule by the god Ram of the Indian epic, the Ramayana), it was a loosely connected country of traditional villages, with people in their traditional occupations and living self-sufficiently. Consequently a major regression of the productive forces was entailed. In the twentieth century, this was obviously a utopia.

But bourgeois revolutionaries have never, or almost never, articulated clearly the system they succeeded in establishing. It is very hard to mobilize the masses by promising they will be exploited even more viciously. Consequently, idealistic figures have typically led the most radical wing of the bourgeois revolution, with its ultimate goals in the end escaping them. Cromwell advocated the rule of the saints, Robespierre called for the rule of reason, and Gandhi wanted the rule of Ram. What they succeeded in getting was capitalist England, capitalist France, and capitalist India. Ideology is not important. What matters is whose interests they represent, and in the case of Gandhi, this was clearly the bourgeoisie.

Or in other words:

Bourgeois revolutions exist at the intersection between objective historical processes and conscious human agency. As ‘episodes of convulsive political transformation’ they involve forms of collective action, including the intervention of political organisations of various kinds. But bourgeois revolutions also arise from and contribute to ‘the increasing predominance of the capitalist mode of production’. As such, they tend to involve a gap between the intentions of the revolutionary actors and the objective consequences of their struggles (Callinicos 1989).

I would go further and argue that Indian independence as a bourgeois revolution matches more closely the rare cases in which the bourgeoisie themselves have taken on an objectively revolutionary role as a class (the American Civil War is one) than other bourgeois revolutions which have taken place entirely without bourgeois participation (German and Italian unification) or even against them (the Chinese Revolution of 1949).

A final objection might be made. The quote from the above ISR article regards Gandhi’s main failure as the partition of India, causing millions dead and untold suffering, which I think represents the typical left-wing view. If Gandhi was leading the bourgeois revolution, couldn’t it have been accomplished without so much death?

I would answer, again, that in the first place it was not about what Gandhi wanted. He courageously opposed Partition. But it goes deeper: Partition worked out just fine in terms of establishing India as a center of accumulation. Capitalism doesn’t care about suffering and death; we should know that well enough.

A few words about the history of Partition might be in order. It can be kind of hard even for area specialists to understand. What it reminds me of is nothing so much as a slow motion train wreck, albeit one with millions of people on the train, and the survivors being raped and butchered as they tried to get out.

The amazing thing is that even a few years before, there was no indication things would be this way. Throughout the 1940s, we get the Muslim League demanding a separate country for the Indian Muslims, but sitting down with the Congress at the negotiation table time and again.


Jinnah (center) with Ambedkar (right) and E.V. Ramaswamy, the Dravidian nationalist leader (second from right)

What Jinnah and his cohorts wanted were guarantees from the Congress that the majority Muslim provinces in the northwest of the country and in Bengal would have autonomy. This was understandable as the demand that their representatives, the Muslim League, would be able to stop anything they didn’t like coming out of the central government.

The revisionist account of Jinnah, which I believe is correct, is that for him Pakistan was in essence a bluff rather than a real demand. He believed the Congress would accept power sharing at the center rather than have a divided country. He was wrong. The Congress leadership was willing to spin off a few provinces in exchange for uncontested power at the center (Jalal 1994). We see this in the complete unreality of Jinnah’s pronouncements following independence: “You may go to your temples, you may go to your mosques…”

Furthermore, Partition was very much functional, perhaps even necessary, in terms of the successful development of capitalism in India. By 1947, a united India promised a perpetual balancing act between the Congress and the Muslim League. This could lead to communal violence and instability with every minor political crisis.

From the point of view of the Indian ruling class, a short and very bloody separation was preferable to long-term instability. In the longer term, the ruling class also stood to gain by being able to pose as the defender of the unitary Indian nation against the Pakistani “other,” which has surely done its part to forestall the development of caste, regional and class solidarities that might threaten to destabilize the accumulation of capital.

Therefore, we can clearly see Gandhi in the pantheon of bourgeois revolutionary leaders. This is not to say that he spoke for the entire national movement at every point. But the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie, which funded him, are refracted through his role. The bourgeoisie was hegemonic within the Congress, and Gandhi was their representative.

Those further left, like Bose, or the CPI for that matter, failed to successfully challenge Gandhi because they never acquired a social base which could break the hegemony of the bourgeoisie over the nationalist movement. It is doubtful that anyone could have succeeded at this given the course of Indian history under the Raj.

Gandhi played to the interests of the bourgeoisie at every point by advocating national unity, by systematically demobilizing potential threats from within the Congress and those posed by mass agitation outside it. He could lead the masses forward with a remarkable degree of confidence that they would not escape his control. At the end of his life, when the Indian capitalism he had opened the door for could actually be established, he was sidelined in favor of the more pragmatic Nehru. But he left an indelible stamp on the Indian bourgeois revolution, and thus on Indian capitalism itself.



The one face of India’s premier city…

Marxism has much to offer the study of Indian history. But previous perspectives of a vacillating or eternally conservative or comprador bourgeoisie, consistent with the assumptions of the revolutionary years of the Comintern and then Stalinism, fail to explain Indian independence in a useful manner. They cannot account for the existence of a confident, assertive bourgeois class that succeeded in establishing its own dominance. The contributions of Cliff, Rees, Callinicos and Davidson writing in the International Socialist tradition offer us the best theoretical framework to understand this history.

Outside of India, socialists should recognize the events leading up to 1947 as a bourgeois revolution, much in the same sense as the English, French and American revolutions. A perspective that shows the leaders of the Congress, especially Gandhi, as constantly holding back a revolutionary movement may satisfy the polemical needs of the time. But these should be united with more sophisticated historical knowledge.

This view of Indian independence dispels firmly any notion of “semi-colonial, semi-feudal” relations of production. India is a modern capitalist country that has experienced a bourgeois revolution, which, unlike many, was democratic in its impact. Chronic underdevelopment of the countryside, deep penetration by multinational corporations, and cooperation between the Indian state and imperialism are all products of a bourgeois ruling class that knows its own interests and is able to act on them.

India may shine for them, but right next to the skyscrapers of Mumbai are the darkened slums in which millions of people live hand to mouth through temporary work, or frequently do not live at all. India is by no means immune to the crises of the world capitalist system of which it is a fully integrated part.

Marxism, not caste liberation, feminism, environmentalism or Gandhism, is the essential fighting tool of Indian revolutionaries. Unfortunately, the hegemony of Stalinism and Maoism over the Indian left and workers’ movement has so far blocked the development of genuine Marxist trends. Both have ignored the pressing questions of caste and women’s liberation from a narrow class-reductionist perspective. Indian radicals have more than a little reason to be suspicious of Marxism because of this.

It is necessary to establish, against Stalinism, that India is a fully capitalist country. With the perspective of a completed bourgeois revolution, revolutionary Marxists in India can look to the contradictions of Indian capitalism, and orient toward those currently best prepared to be progressive forces. These include Dalits, tribal peoples, the oppressed nations of Kashmir and the northeast, Muslims, women and LGBT groups.


… and the other face.

As a modern country, while it operates by the same general laws of capitalist motion, India is a somewhat unique social formation. The ruling class since independence has become a master at exploiting divisions based on religion, language and caste, just to name the three most important. Unfortunately its management is so expert that development of a united Indian working class will be a long time coming. The very course of the development of capitalism, as we have seen, militates against this prospect.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs, including the extended strike by Maruti Suzuki workers in Haryana, and the one-day national general strike by twelve union federations in February of last year. Marxists must have the best appraisal of a country’s history, of the current period and the correct tactics to act on their knowledge. We should hope for the growth of a genuine revolutionary movement in capitalist India that can break the chains of both nationalism and Stalinism.

References for Part 2:

Callinicos, Alex (1989). “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” International Socialism 2.43, pp. 113-171.

Chibber, Vivek (2003). Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP.

Chowdhury, Satyabrata (2007). Leftism in India: 1917-1947. Basingstroke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cliff, Tony (1963). “Deflected Permanent Revolution,” International Socialism 1.12

Davidson, Neil (2012). How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? Chicago: Haymarket.

Isserman, Maurice (1993). If I Had a Hammer: The Decline of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois.

Jalal, Ayesha (1994). The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Moridian, Meneejeh, and David Whitehouse (2000). “Gandhi and the Politics of Non-Violence,” International Socialist Review 14.

Rees, John (1999). “From the Democratic Revolution to the Socialist Revolution,” International Socialism 2.83

Trotsky, Leon (1971). “What is National Socialism?,” pp. 522-533 in Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany. New York: Pathfinder.


Filed under History

4 responses to “The Bourgeois Revolution in India, Part 2

  1. AR

    Excellent piece. Very engaging and well thought out. The idea of partition being necessary for the establishment and growth of capitalism is a fairly novel idea which may require not just elucidation but justification. Post colonial India has witnessed communal tension throughout its brief existence. In fact an aggressive, right wing Hindu state government based on the premise of offering a functioning, conducive market for capital has been largely responsible for communal riots which occurred in 2002. The oscillation and politicking over the communal issue continues to be a major theme within post colonial India, with capitalism nevertheless making headway in every direction. In an otherwise excellent piece, my sense was that a few points such as Gandhi’s encounter with capital may require a far more detailed treatment.

    • Thank you so much, AR. This piece was not really intended to be anything more than a summation of my current thoughts on independence and particularly the incorrect views Marxists tend to have on it. I’m glad you think it was valuable in some way.

      I also understand and (I think) share most of your concerns. I don’t really have a solid answer as to why Indian capital has been able to survive and even thrive in an environment of great communal tension, as you say in Gujarat, if it was endangered by it before. I do think that capital tends to overcome barriers more successfully after a unified center of accumulation has been established, which Davidson goes into quite a bit. Bourgeois revolution is sort of a turning point or climax in a process which goes on both before and after.

      I’m trying to think about this is a more or less new way, so it’s probably inevitable that there are some dead ends and detours along the way. But I think overall the important thing after 1947 was to ensure the unity of the Indian state as a site for independent accumulation. Nehru had been willing to accept partition, but he was terrified that it might lead to India getting “Balkanized” as we would say now. He was very harsh on Hindu fundamentalism, which did him the favor of discrediting itself when they assassinated Gandhi. But I’m also thinking about the States Reorganization Committee, which Nehru and the Congress brass had to be dragged into kicking and screaming. It was only after they saw that linguistic boundaries did not threaten the unity of India (after 1956 or so when Andhra Pradesh had been around for a few years) that they accepted popular demands for linguistic states.

      So if Indian national capitalism has been firmly established and unified within the territory of the Indian state, can’t it then experiment with and benefit from other policies than the ones that initially led it to success – from Nehruvian secular developmentalism to BJP religious developmentalism? I don’t consider the BJP “fascist,” but my impression is that its political practice could create a friendly climate for capital by further impeding the growth of working class and lower caste consciousness – perhaps similar to Orange ideology for Protestant workers in Northern Ireland.

      Now in terms of Partition, I don’t claim that a unitary Indian capitalist state absolutely could not have been established. What I’m saying is that in 1947, it seemed incredibly unlikely that it could without causing huge headaches the ruling class would rather not deal with. I think that capital tends to move along the paths of least resistance, and that after they had succeeded in defeating the British, it would make sense for the Indian bourgeoisie and Congress to look for the shortest road to power. For better or worse, that road included partition.

      On Gandhi, I don’t think my points were as well fleshed out as I would like them to be. I will be the first to admit that my knowledge could be better. But what I want to do is suggest a reinterpretation of him as a bourgeois revolutionary, which I think is overall correct, whatever you think of his links with Indian capital. I hope to expand and develop the argument far more than I have laid it out here.

      • AR

        Thank you catbert368. I’m glad you leave open possibility of debate and dialogue at every stage of a fairly compelling argument.

        I’m trying to locate a library holding Neil Davidson’s book after chancing upon it in your blog. On a general note, I would be slightly cautious before adopting the view that “capital tends to overcome barriers more successfully after a unified center of accumulation has been established”. My own sense, especially in the Indian context, as capital in my view tends to be historically specific in reifying other structures or overcoming barriers. While I do not have an answer to why capital has prevailed in an atmosphere of communal tension, it is probably this historical (and contemporary) specificity that possibly sees it adopt a variety of forms.

        Secondly your argument on ensuring the unity of the independent Indian state to preserve a site for independent accumulation, I personally think is a very good framework for further scholarship. I would ask you to take a look at Manu Goswami’s work, ‘Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space’ which argues that the Indian nation state was imagined in terms of capital as early as 1907. Your argument in essence, which may have hit the nail on the head, i.e was there ever a danger of a politically unstable nation state in the face of a necessary center for independent accumulation.

        Thirdly on the transition from “Nehruvian secular developmentalism to BJP religious developmentalism”, which is once again is a complex issue. We must realise that the roots of neoliberalism in India were not sown by the BJP government, but a Congress government with a Cambridge economist as its finance minister who agreed to “structural re-adjustment” by the IMF in 1991. In the face of such capitalistic development, we also saw reservations of an unprecedented nature, along with communal violence. The year was famously termed one of “mandal, masjid and market”. Simultaneously, we observe caste movements in states like Uttar Pradesh, and a curious phenomenon of “Dalit capitalism” which gained quite a bit of currency. My intention is to only flag the “spontaneous” nature of capital, which tends to co-opt or make political praxis almost reflexive and is incredibly difficult to comprehend in all its forms.

        Gandhi’s engagement with capital as a “bourgeois revolutionary” most certainly warrants a re-interpretation. On that I completely agree with you. The one caution I feel we must adopt is acknowledge that the term “revolutionary” here is being used in a strictly Marxist sense. Once again, some great posts – keep it coming!

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the Relevance of the IS Tradition | That Faint Light

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