The year 2019 marks 102 years of “The Socialist Revolution of Russia” also known as “The October Revolution” under leadership of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. In India, the struggle for independence from British colonial rule was deeply enriched by lessons from world’s first successful revolution, which was socialist in nature.
People from all sections of society, such as activists, writers, artistes, and public intellectuals were inspired by the October Revolution, leading to a rich creative treasure of art and literary works. This diverse contribution did channelise anti-imperial forces.
The Ghadar Party was among some organisations that got ignited from the first Russian Revolution in 1905. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi regarded it as “the greatest event of the present century” and “a great lesson to us”. India was also switching to this “Russian remedy against tyranny,” Gandhi had said. The revolution made Marxism-Leninism a potent ideological force internationally.
Interestingly, the Right-wing forces in India in the past few years have unleashed a vigorous propaganda, raising questions about a revolutionary icon like Lenin, the revolution led by him in Soviet Russia and its impact on India. In a rebuttal of such misdeeds, here are a few examples of literary and political figures who were inspired by the Russian revolution:
Madam Bhikaji Cama
Madam Bhikaji Cama was the first Indian to appreciate the role of the working class in the 1905 Russian Revolution, the first Indian abroad who got interested in Marxism and the first ever to realise the significance of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
In a speech that she delivered on August 22, 1907, she said: “I stand before the tribunal of human justice because Socialism spells Justice…I believe a day will come when India will awake and follow the example of our Russian Comrades to whom we particularly send our fraternal greetings.”
Madam Cama at International Socialist Conference, Russia 1907
During the preparatory years of the great Russian experiment, the socialist revolutionary, Ilya Rubanovich, a veteran of the revolutionary organisation named Narodnaya Volya, edited a paper named La Tribune Russe. Inspired by Rubanovich’s paper, Cama made sure that her own paper, Bande Mataram, was printed in Geneva to avoid prosecution for publishing seditious material. “The Russians are getting everything printed in Switzerland”, wrote Cama –- and Rubanovich even contributed a piece to the Bande Mataram (February 1911).
Tamil poet- writer Chinnaswami Subramania Bharti, as a journalist, kept internationalism as touchstone for spreading the idea of nationalism in India. He composed an ode to the Russian Revolution in a poem entitled Pudiya Russia (The New Russia) with following words: “Life of the people as they themselves order it/A law to uplift the life of the common man/Now are there no bonds of slavery/No slaves exist now”. This also reflected his political philosophy.
Kazi Nazrul, the Bengali poet, was among the literary figures who garnered lessons from the October Revolution. Islam rejoiced the liberation of Russians from the clutches of the Czar. The success of the Bolsheviks inspired Nazrul Islam to pen down poetry and fiction. His poems on equality in published in Samyabadi journal and fictional write-up, Byathar Dan, were inspired by the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Writer Saadat Hasan Manto was also among admirers of the socialist experiment. The clearest indication of his inclination towards the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) comes from his radio play, Karl Marx: “The Soviet Union is no longer a dream, a raw idea or madness; it’s a concrete reality. A concrete reality which clashed with the steely plans of Hitler in war fields thousands of miles long, and which shattered fascism – ironclad fascism – into a million pieces. That socialism which used to be understood once as mere fantasy of a few Don Quixotes; the socialism which was once understood as a source of idle play; the same socialism which was treated like a prostitute by several pious European nations; the same socialism which was trusted to be bereft of both religion and humanity. Today it is shining as a ray of hope for sick humanity in the vast fields of Russia. This is the same socialism whose map was prepared approximately 150 years ago by Karl Marx – he is worthy of our respect, he who found a source of equality and fraternity not for himself, for his nation, his race, his country, but for the whole world, for all humanity”.
Hindi writer Munshi Premchand was also deeply influenced by the events in Russia where the Bolsheviks had captured power to ameliorate peasants and workers. This is clear from his writings of the time, in particular his article entitled, Daur-i-Qadim: Daur-i-Jadid (the old epoch and the new), published in Zamana of February 1919, wherein he exposes the system under which the honest worker becomes a slave to the capitalist who controls the capital (machine), whereas the poor have to fight bloody wars launched by the moneyed classes.
The writing reflects Premchand’s deep interest in the Russian revolution. A strong advocate of abolition of the zamindari (feudal) system in another sense makes him a supporter of land reforms which, in independent India, has only been undertaken by the organised Left movement and their government.
Mohammad Iqbal was attracted to socialism for its principles of unity and equality of mankind. He was, perhaps, the first Urdu poet of Asia to greet the victory of the great socialist October Revolution in Russia. Iqbal’s Urdu poem, Sarmaya wa Mihnat (Capital and Labour) was a tribute to victory of humanity in Russia. He openly appealed to the working class of the world to follow in footsteps of Soviet Russia in the battle against imperialism and capitalism.
Rabindranath Tagore’s “Letter to Russia” is considered as one of the known landmark view on the October Revolution in which he writes, “In stepping on the soil of Russia, the first thing that caught my eye was that in education, at any rate, the peasant and the working classes have made such enormous progress in these few years that nothing comparable has happened even to our highest classes in the course of the last hundred and fifty years….
The people here are not at all afraid of giving complete education even to Turcoman of distant Asia; on the contrary, they are utterly in earnest about it. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I could have never believed that in just ten years they have not only led hundreds of thousands of people out of the darkness of ignorance and degradation and taught them to read and write, but also fostered in them a sense of human dignity. We need to come here specifically to study the organization of education”.
The most interesting and fearless stand in favour of Lenin’s success of revolution from colonial India was taken by youth, who were a handful in number but were convinced of the socialist path as a vanguard of humanity against imperial rule of exploitation and discrimination.
Bhupendranath Dutta, another outstanding Indian revolutionary, who was greatly influenced by the Russian Revolution, tried to implement its lessons in Indian conditions. He was the younger brother of the patriot-saint Swami Vivekananda and joined the Comintern in Moscow in 1921.
M.N.Roy and Birendranath Dasgupta also attented Comintern. Just after this event, on August 23, 1921, Dutta had sent his thesis “Communist Revolution- Final Solution of the Indian Problem”. In reply to this, Lenin advised them not to think about the social classes but to give importance to peasants’ causes which was important for India’s liberation.
Captain Lakshmi Sahgal was among the fearless visionaries of our freedom struggle who stood for working class unity against the imperial rule. Lakshmi Suhasini Nambiar, who stayed with the family of Lakshmi Sahgal as a political fugitive during the Meerut Conspiracy Case, has narrated conversations about the Bolshevik Revolution, about Lenin and about the nascent communist movement in India. She made Laxmi Sahgal see beyond the middle-class aspirations for freedom and laid the foundation for her later commitment to a freedom that would eradicate poverty, caste injustice and gender discrimination. She also taught her to sing, The Internationale, which eventually resulted in Lakshmi Sahgal’s entry into Independent India’s communist movement as a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh
Bhagat Singh’s valour and courageous sacrifice to free India from imperial rule was inspired by a set of ideals that charted success in Soviet Russia. As a result, he formed the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA) in 1928 at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground in Delhi and later made arrangements for HSRA member Prithvi Singh Azad to visit Soviet Russia.
On January 21, 1930, Bhagat Singh and his HSRA comrades, accused in the Lahore Conspiracy Case, appeared in the court wearing red scarves. As soon as the magistrate took his chair, they raised slogans "Long Live Socialist Revolution", "Long Live Communist International", "Long Live People" "Lenin's Name Will Never Die", and "Down with Imperialism".
Bhagat Singh then read the text of this telegram in the court and asked the magistrate to send it to the Third International. The telegram stated as follows- “ON LENIN DAY WE SEND HEARTY GREETINGS TO ALL who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin. We wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism”.
Even on the day his hanging, Bhagat Singh was reading a book on Lenin named, Reminiscences of Lenin, by Clara Zetkin, a German Marxist.
The Russian revolution and its importance in the context of India can never be diluted as the established form of the Indian Constitution depicts the result which was attained by Soviet Russia after the revolution. Out of 16 Articles that deal with the Directive Principles of State Policy, five -- Article 39, Article 41, Article 42, Article 43, Article 46 -- are directly based on “Socialistic Principles”.
The battle of vision continues. What socialism means in India can only be concretised after the completion of the democratic stage of the Indian revolution, i.e, the People’s Democratic Revolution. We need to equip ourselves to convert this possibility into reality with the optimistic words of Karl Marx: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: The point, however, is to change it.”
The writer is a freelance reporter and informal researcher based in Bihar. The views are personal.