Maoism – A Critique From the Left

Pragoti has had a number of contributors from the Left taking on the subject of Maoism and Maoist violence in India. Various articles such asthis or this have addressed the subject. One of the regular contributors to Pragoti, Prasenjit Bose, has now edited a volume of articles which critique the Maoists from the viewpoint of the organised Left in the country. The critique is organised on various lines – a theory/praxis critique by PMS Grewal and Nilotpal Basu and a comparative assessment of various extremist/Maoist movements across the world, particularly in Latin America by another Pragoti contributor Vijay Prashad. The book is rounded off with a telling ideological document that debated the viewpoints of the Naxalites before these left wing sectarians branched off from the CPI(M) in the late 1960s. The book is available for purchase here. With permission from Prasenjit Bose, we are carrying the introduction to the book (the first chapter) in this post.

Introduction — Prasenjit Bose

As the debate on leftwing extremist violence and the state’s offensive against it intensifies in India, opinion tends to get increasingly polarized. On the one side are those who consider the CPI (Maoist) as a destructive terrorist group, much like the Islamist Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or the separatist United Liberation Force of Asom (ULFA), which has to be crushed through the military might of the state. On the other side are those who see the Maoists as a revolutionary force, fighting for the cause of the exploited and the marginalized, and justify their violent acts as a necessary evil in order to bring about radical social transformation. Little effort is made, however, from either end to delve deeper into the question of leftwing extremism, in India or elsewhere, in order to understand its current activities in terms of its ideological basis, social roots and historical origins. 

Many on the Right consider this to be an entirely fruitless exercise, because they see any effort to analyse the root causes of extremism and terrorism as an expression of empathy, which accords legitimacy to the extremist cause. Such a rightwing approach leads to foolhardiness, so vividly demonstrated by George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. That has not only led to unforgivable criminality in the form of imperialist invasions and occupations, killings and torture of innocents and destruction of entire societies; it has also singularly failed to combat extremism and terrorism. Rather, the extremist cause itself has received impetus across the world.

Some on the Left, however, go to the other extreme, especially when it comes to leftwing extremism. While very few come out explicitly espousing or defending the Maoist ideology, there is a tendency among others either to romanticize or to overlook their mindless violence and to one-sidedly berate the state for its security operations. This penchant for condoning acts of terror or glorifying violence in the name of radicalism – even that directed against innocent and helpless victims and not against the state – is entirely opportunistic. Marx, writing in the context of the philosophical roots of religion, had said: ‘To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter’.1 Celebration of leftwing extremism and violence arises precisely out of the inability or the lack of willingness on the part of some thinkers, ‘to grasp the root of the matter’, and thereby terribly confuse form with content.

The present volume, which brings together three essays, looks at the question of left extremism from a Marxist standpoint. Left sectarianism, adventurism and dogmatism, as phenomena, are neither new nor unique to India. This collection of articles not only critiques its contemporary manifestation in India in the shape of the CPI (Maoist), but also traces its historical origins and record, both in the Indian context as well as internationally to show left sectarianism for what it is: a road to nowhere. But it is not simply an innocuous tendency, which surfaces within the Left from time to time. Historically, left sectarianism has been very counter-productive and it retains the potential of seriously damaging the prospects of the Left in future. The present volume therefore seeks to contribute to the ideological-political struggle against left sectarianism, by exposing its erroneous theoretical foundations and distorted praxis.


Lenin’s 1920 work, Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, is a classic on the inner struggles and ideological debates within the international Communist movement in the early decades of the twentieth century. Lenin identified two tendencies which were inimical to the interests of the working class movement: ‘opportunism’, which ‘developed into social-chauvinism and definitely sided with the bourgeoisie’ and ‘petty-bourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism, or borrows something from the latter and, in all essential matters, does not measure up to the conditions and requirements of a consistently proletarian class struggle’.2 On the latter tendency Lenin elaborated:

A petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism is a social phenomenon which, like anarchism, is characteristic of all capitalist countries. The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another – all this is common knowledge. However, a theoretical or abstract recognition of these truths does not at all rid revolutionary parties of old errors, which always crop up at unexpected occasions, in somewhat new forms, in a hitherto unfamiliar garb or surroundings, in an unusual – a more or less unusual – situation.

Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working class movement. The two monstrosities complemented each other.

Lenin’s observations on ‘leftwing communism’ contain four crucial insights, which were not only accurate in the specific context in which they were made, but have continued to remain valid for the Communist movement. Firstly, left sectarianism is a reflection of a petty bourgeois class outlook, in contrast to a ‘consistent proletarian’ class outlook. Secondly, it is unstable, in the sense that it appears as a trend within the movement, peaks and then dissipates within a short span of time. Thirdly, despite being unstable, it does recur within the movement from time to time at certain conjunctures, since the social basis for such extremism always exist in capitalist societies. And fourthly, it often appears as a ‘penalty for the opportunist sins’ within the Left movement, and ideologically-politically ‘complements’ such opportunism.

Lenin’s position vis-à-vis left sectarianism is enunciated by citing several concrete instances on which the Bolsheviks had to wage struggle against ‘petty-bourgeois revolutionism’, both within the party and outside (with the Socialist Revolutionary Party). For instance, left sectarianism had to be fought on the question of ‘a strictly objective appraisal of the class forces and their alignment, before taking any political action’. This is vital for the Communist movement, because an overestimation of its own strength and underestimation of the strength of the enemy inevitably leads to adventurist actions and setbacks.

Then there was the question of violence and ‘individual terrorism’, which the left extremists considered to be the essential hallmark of revolutionism. Lenin states that this was something that ‘we Marxists emphatically rejected’, not because Marxists are opposed to violence ‘in principle’, but because it was not ‘expedient’ at all times. In essence, the context in which the Communists take to violence has to be very specific – Lenin cites the violence during the French revolution or that employed by ‘a victorious revolutionary party which is besieged by the bourgeoisie of the whole world’. Being a revolutionary Marxist certainly does not imply being supportive of violence per se.

Lenin also underlined the struggle against the left sectarian tendency to ‘sneer at the comparatively insignificant opportunist sins      . . . while they themselves imitated the extreme opportunists . . .’ This is precisely how the extreme left ‘complements’ opportunist tendencies within the Communist movement. Struggles against left deviation were conducted within the Bolshevik party too, most importantly, on the question of participation in ‘a most reactionary parliament’. Lenin cites that the ‘left’ Bolsheviks had to be expelled from the party in 1908 for ‘stubbornly refusing to understand the necessity of participating in a most reactionary parliament’, at a time when the situation demanded that the party combined ‘legal and illegal activities’.

It is noteworthy that the core issues in which the revolutionary movement in Russia witnessed intense ideological-political struggles between the Bolsheviks and the extreme left in the early decades of the twentieth century – on the correct assessment of the correlation of class forces at a given time, on violence and individual terrorism, on Communists’ participation in bourgeois parliament, etc. – resurfaced time and again in different countries throughout the twentieth century, wherever the Communist movement was significant. Even today, these are precisely the issues, which mark the basic differences between the Communist and left sectarian trends.


The Communist movement in India was initiated in the backdrop of the freedom struggle in the 1920s. While the Communists did not succeed in acquiring the leadership of the national liberation movement against British colonialism, they played an important role by drawing in large sections of the working class and the peasantry within the ambit of the movement and influencing its overall direction. Following independence, alongside the emergence of the Communist party as a major opposition force to the ruling Congress party within the parliamentary democratic set up, ideological debates also intensified within the Left on the road to revolution in India. The initial debate surrounded the basic programmatic approach of the Communist movement, especially in regard to the characterization of the Indian state and the revolutionary strategy to be adopted.

On the one side of this debate were those who considered the independent Indian state as one, which was led by the national bourgeoisie, which was consistently anti-imperialist and had an  anti-feudal character. From such a progres sive characterization of ‘Nehruvian socialism’, it followed that the Communists would necessarily have to dovetail their revolutionary strategy to the efforts of the state led by the national bourgeoisie, which would eventually lead, through various transitory stages, to socialism. This class collaborationist and revisionist understanding was challenged by a significant section within the Communist party, which led to intense inner-party struggle during the 1950s and the eventual split in the Communist Party of India in 1964.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)], formed in 1964, arrived at a programmatic understanding that the Indian state is a bourgeois-landlord state led by the big bourgeoisie, which has a dual character. On the one hand the big bourgeoisie collaborates with imperialism in its pursuit of capitalist development. On the other hand, it has conflicts with imperialism in order to preserve and expand its economic domain, which it seeks to resolve through pressure, bargain and compromise. It is this dual character which gets manifested in the economic and foreign policies pursued by the Central Government. On the basis of such characterization of the Indian ruling classes and the state, a revolutionary strategy of building a peoples’ democratic front – an alliance of workers, peasants and other toiling sections under working class leadership – was enunciated. The revolution, directed against the big bourgeoisie, landlordism and imperialism, is to be achieved by combining parliamentary and extra-parliamentary struggles. This overall understanding, however, was questioned by a small section, which considered participation in the parliamentary democratic process – just as the left sectarians did during Lenin’s time – to be revisionist and non-revolutionary in principle.

Such left deviationist tendencies were always present within the Communist movement in India. It had surfaced vividly during the immediate aftermath of independence leading to errors like characterizing political independence as merely ‘formal independence’ and calling for armed insurrection against the newly independent state. These, however, were subsequently corrected and the Communists participated in the first general elections held in independent India in 1952. In the late 1960s, however, left sectarianism reappeared on the scene. This was the period when land struggles under Communist leadership were gaining momentum inWest Bengal, drawing in large sections of the peasantry. The Congress was losing ground, and after the 1967 state assembly elections the first non-Congress United Front Government was formed in West Bengal, in which the CPI (M) participated. The same year, extreme left elements who were opposing the participation of the CPI (M) in elections, led a violent peasant revolt in Naxalbari in theDarjeeling district of north Bengal, and gave a call for armed insurrection to overthrow the state.

Significantly, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC), which had itself come under the grip of left sectarianism during this period – culminating in the ‘cultural revolution’ – openly backed the left adventurists in India. People’s Daily, the official organ of the CPC, published an editorial on July 5, 1967, entitled ‘Spring Thunder Breaks Over India’, where it hailed the Naxalbari revolt because ‘armed struggle is the only correct road for the Indian revolution . . . the spark in Darjeeling will start a prairie fire . . .’. Encouraged by such prognoses and prescriptions, naxalites in India borrowed wholesale from the strategy of the Chinese revolution developed in the 1930s and 1940s along with the CPC’s concepts and formulations of the Indian state and society put forward in the late 1960s. They went to great lengths to portray themselves as the flag bearers of the ‘Chinese line’, even coining the slogan: ‘China’s chairman is our chairman, Chinese path is our path’. When the CPI (ML) was formed in 1970, its programme stated:

The democratic revolution in India is taking place in the era of Mao Tse-tung when world imperialism is heading for total collapse and socialism is advancing towards worldwide victory. Our revolution is a part of the great proletarian cultural revolution which has consolidated socialism and proletarian dictatorship in China and has turned Chinainto the reliable base area of world revolution. Our revolution is taking place at a time…when the CPC headed by Chairman Mao and Vice-Chairman Lin Piao is leading the international proletariat to fulfill its historic mission of emancipating the whole of mankind from the rule of imperialism and reaction and establishing socialism and communism on this earth. We are a contingent of this great army of the international proletariat. (Emphasis added.)

Thus, from their very inception, left sectarians in India have believed in a one size fits all theory of revolution – that of imitating the Chinese path. They never felt the need to seriously engage with Indian society, understand its socio-economic realities and its historical and cultural specificities. They trashed the experience of the Indian Communist movement during the freedom struggle as well as the post-independence period. Most importantly, they misestimated the correlation of class forces and misread the mood among the masses. Their dogma was simple: the situation is always ripe for a revolution, and if revolution succeeded in China by following a certain path, the only thing that needed to be done was to emulate it in India at all costs.

The naxalite folly, in relying upon such imported know-how to make revolution and trying to blindly imitate it, became amply clear within a very short span. The armed rebellions led by the left adventurists in some rural pockets of West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh were either crushed by the state or fizzled out by 1970–71. Not only did their unrealistic slogans fail to arouse the peasantry, their mindless violence and individual terrorism alienated the masses. The attempts to spread anarchy in the urban areas in the name of ‘cultural revolution’ further isolated them and invited more state repression. By the time of their leader Charu Mazumdar’s death in police custody in 1972, the ‘spring thunder’ had ended in a whimper.

The CPC had realised by 1970 that the naxalite movement in India was going nowhere and was turning into an embarrassment. It is reported that the CPC sent a note to Charu Mazumdar expressing its reservations over the activities of the CPI (ML) some time in 1970–71.3 The main criticisms made by the CPC were directed against the description of Mao Zedong as India’s chairman, secret assassinations, making bloodletting the yardstick for the revolutionary fervour of a member, ignoring mass work and mass struggle, confusing military tactics with political and organizational issues, and misrepresenting united front tactics. However, the damage had already been done.


The failure of the naxalite movement in India in the 1970s did lead to some reflection on the part of those who had been its active participants, but the weakness of their theoretical foundations and concepts came in the way of any meaningful introspection and course correction. Significant changes took place within the CPC itself in the 1970s, especially after the death of Mao Zedong, and the errors of the cultural revolution were finally put to rest in 1978. So dependent and fragile was the ideological framework of the CPI (ML) that it could not come to grips with those changes, eventually leading to innumerable splits in the 1970s and 1980s.4 

In practice, the main debate within the naxalites has always been on whether their activities would remain to be based on individual annihilation of ‘class enemies’ or to reorient their work prioritizing mass activities and participating in the democratic process. Some naxalite groups, like the CPI (ML) Liberation and the CPI (ML) New Democracy, eventually abandoned armed struggle and joined the parliamentary democratic process. However, other groups like the CPI (ML) Peoples’ War and the Maoist Communist Centre continued with their violent tactics and eventually merged in 2004 to form the CPI (Maoist). The programme of the CPI (Maoist), which is at the forefront of leftwing extremism in India today, envisages as its central task, the ‘seizure of political power by armed struggle’; a throwback to the same old Chinese path.

The experience of the Communist movement in India has already shown the futility of a blind pursuit of armed struggle against the Indian state. In a context where parliamentary democracy has taken root, resort to armed struggle without exhausting the potential for mass mobilization within the democratic set up, not only fails in its objective but also turns the masses away. Moreover, the socio-economic realities today, in India and abroad, are very different from the situation in the 1960s and 1970s, when socialism existed as a major countervailing force to imperialism. We are currently in an era where international finance-driven imperialism dominates economically, militarily and culturally, posing stiffer challenges before the Communist movement.

Left politics itself has undergone a sea change globally, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, with newer questions of democracy, peoples’ participation and social justice acquiring added significance. The need has been felt within the Left, especially among Communists across the globe, to renew and enrich the vision for socialism in keeping with the momentous changes that have taken place over the past two decades. Some parties with a left extremist past have also seriously engaged with these questions, most notably the Nepalese Maoists, and have repositioned themselves within the democratic process. For the contemporary left sectarians in India, however, the answer to all such questions is to be found in guerilla warfare and ‘liberated zones’.

The current activities of the CPI (Maoist), across their pockets of existence in the remote forest areas in India’s central-eastern region, bear out the degeneration that inevitably follows from dogmatism. The typical tactics of the Maoists have been to build their base areas in the jungles near tribal habitats and establish their control over the area through the force of the gun, eliminating or terrorizing all other political parties and tribal organizations into submission. The Maoists do not believe in organizing the tribals for exercising their rights over land and forest resources or for socio-economic development.5 Their sole aim is to set up the so-called ‘liberated zones’, where the entry of all other state or non-state actors is prohibited by force and no political activities other than their own are permissible. These ‘liberated zones’ are then used to launch armed attacks in other areas against the state machinery, not only the police stations and paramilitary outposts but often targeting railway tracks, roads, power stations, telecom facilities and even schools and health centres. Political opponents are often executed after conducting kangaroo courts and labeling them ‘police informers’. Extortion from forest contractors and the mining mafia is the primary means of financing these activities.6 Such nihilist anarchism perpetrated in the name of ‘people’s war’, and the eventual retaliation by the state, brings immense suffering to the tribals and other forest dwelling communities, shattering their lives and livelihoods.

Even as the Maoists issue calls for boycott of elections, they forge underhand deals with individual leaders and candidates of bourgeois political parties during elections and indulge in booth capturing in their favour in exchange for money, protection and patronage. This has happened repeatedly in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and more recently inWest Bengal. They also assassinate elected representatives from different political parties at the behest of their rivals. For instance, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MP Sunil Mahato was killed in Ghatshila by the Maoists in March 2007. They also made assassination attempts against the former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister in 2003 and the West Bengal Chief Minister in November 2008.

It is noteworthy that the cadres of Left formations, especially the CPI (M) – mostly belonging to the toiling classes and socially deprived sections – are specifically targeted by the CPI (Maoist) and assassinated on a frequent basis. They see the presence of a significant Left force in India’s political mainstream and their success as a big impediment in furthering their left extremist agenda. While the Left as a whole has to traverse a long way to eventually succeed in its revolutionary objective in India, it has over the years played a consistent and significant role in defending people’s rights and deepening democracy. In the past two decades the Left emerged as the ideological-political core around which the resistance and struggles against communalism, neoliberal policies and imperialism have been built. The Left-led state governments, despite their limited powers, have successfully implemented pro-people policies like land redistribution and democratic decentralization, which have benefited the peasantry and the working people and expanded the mass appeal of the Left. All this is anathema to the left sectarians.

Much of their current violence is therefore directed against the Left, especially in the CPI (M) stronghold of West Bengal. No political party anywhere in India has lost as many activists and supporters to Maoist terror, as has the CPI (M) in West Bengal since 2008. What is worse, this mayhem is being conducted in league with the main rightwing opposition to the Left Front in West Bengal, the Trinamul Congress, with the avowed aim of bringing them into power in the state in the 2011 assembly elections. This gang-up with right reactionary forces in order to settle scores with the Communist Left marks the climax of degeneration for the Maoists in India.


The present volume seeks to make an intervention in this backdrop. All the three essays contained in this volume deal with left sectarianism, with two focusing on the CPI (Maoist) in India and one with the international experience of left adventurism. The first essay by P.M.S. Grewal is a theoretical critique of the programmatic understanding of the Indian Maoists. Grewal revisits the earlier debates within the Indian Communist movement, tracing the origins of left sectarianism, to show how the Maoists of today have remained prisoners of the old dogmas regarding the Indian state and society as well as the revolutionary path. He exposes the theoretical hollowness of the Maoists and blows up the myth about their being a revolutionary force fighting for the cause of the tribals or other exploited sections. The last section of the essay provides detailed information on the recent Maoist attacks against the CPI (M) and the Left in Lalgarh and elsewhere.

Nilotpal Basu’s essay complements Grewal’s analysis, by looking at the flawed ideological political approach of the Maoists, which negates the very first principles of Marxism-Leninism. Basu argues that the greatness of Mao Zedong lies precisely in his creative application of Marxism in the concrete conditions of Chinese society in the 1930s and 1940s and not in mechanically implementing the Comintern line on how to carry out the revolution in China. In contrast, the Indian Maoists seek to re-enact the Chinese revolution in contemporary Indian conditions, which are vastly different from those in pre-revolutionaryChina. The farcical end result is the very anti-thesis of Mao Zedong thought. Basu makes a robust critique of the anti-democratic practices of the Maoists and their hypocritical sympathizers. He also argues that Maoists can be effectively dealt with, not by means of imposing bans or security measures alone, but by ensuring their political isolation and addressing the developmental needs of the tribal areas where the Maoists operate.

Vijay Prashad looks at the international experience of left extremism, especially in Latin America. Through very informative expositions of the major political developments within the Left in countries likeVenezuela, Brazil, Cuba, Peru and Colombia, Prashad argues that the present day realities do not favour guerilla warfare any more. Prashad contrasts the failure of armed struggles in country after country with the successful ‘long march through the institutions’ by the Latin American Left, and draws the conclusion that the way forward for the Left lies in mass movements and not guns. The discussion on the Maoists in Peru and Philippines is particularly relevant in the Indian context as it demonstrates similar tendencies within the extreme left leading to very similar and equally destructive outcomes.

We also reproduce as an annexure, excerpts from a CPI (M) document, Ideological Debate Summed Up, which was first published in June 1968. This document throws light on the ideological debates within the Communist movement in India in the 1960s. The relevant excerpts from the document reproduced here deal with all the ideological questions thrown up by the naxalites – whether India’s independence was merely ‘formal’, whether the Indian big bourgeoisie was ‘comprador’, whether the state was ‘neocolonial’ and a ‘puppet’ of imperialism, whether to take part in the parliamentary democratic process and participate in coalition governments in the states. This document serves as an appropriate historical backgrounder to the Marxist critique of contemporary left sectarianism in India. It contains an important and enduring vision – that the road to revolution in Indiawill neither be the Chinese road nor the Russian road, but a distinct Indian road.


1 Karl Marx, Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1844.

2 The discussion here is based on the chapter ‘The Struggle Against Which Enemies Within the Working-Class Movement Helped Bolshevism Develop, Gain Strength, and Become Steeled’.

3 See Biplab Dasgupta, The Naxalite Movement, Allied Publishers, 1974. In Chapter 7 (p. 195) Dasgupta refers to an inner-party note submitted by Ashim Chatterjee titled ‘Bartaman Partyr Kajer Sar Sankalan’ (in Bengali) where he accuses Charu Mazumdar of suppressing the CPC note because it contained criticism of his policies. Later the main points in the Chinese note were circulated among the members of the CPI (ML) in a letter signed among others by Kanu Sanyal and C. Tejeswar Rao.

4 For a detailed discussion on the ideological-political basis of the splintering of the naxalites in the 1970s and 1980s, see Prakash Karat, ‘Naxalism Today: At an Ideological Deadend’, The Marxist, Jan-March, 1985.

5 For instance, the Maoists have remained conspicuously absent in the struggles to defend the forest rights of the tribals waged by various democratic organisations alongside the Communists, which eventually led to the enactment of the Tribal Forest Rights Act in the Indian parliament in 2006. Moreover, unlike the late 1960s when the naxalites attempted to organize tribal peasant revolts, the contemporary Maoists take absolutely no interest in organizing the peasantry, either against landlords or the state’s anti-peasant policies.

One Response to “Maoism – A Critique From the Left”

  1. Those who take the side of Tata, neo-liberalism and the anti-democratic Indian state have made their allegiance clear. If you despise Marxism and the communist fight, then just say what you are: corrupt liberal government flunkies. If you worship the bourgeois state, to the point of supporting counter-insurgency, rape and goon squads: then who do you think you’re fooling?

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