People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 19

May 13, 2007



Prabhat Patnaik


IN its essentials, the revolt of 1857, represented, in class terms, a peasant uprising, where the peasantry was led by a class of landlords, consisting of petty chieftains, taluqdars, and dispossessed feudal rulers. While ostensibly it was a revolt of the “sepoys”, these latter were drawn from amongst the peasantry; and the revolt, according to authoritative historians, enjoyed considerable support in the countryside, where the peasantry was the dominant force. Indeed without such support in the countryside, it could not have had the sweep, or the strength, or the durability, that it actually displayed. While it often appealed to people in the language of religion (so for that matter did Gandhiji), it was far from being a religious uprising as some latter-day Western scholars, obsessed with the spectre of Islamic fundamentalism, are prone to assert. On the contrary it represented a remarkable example of unity among the Hindus and the Muslims in the regions of resistance. And this unity was forged in a common struggle against the colonial rulers whose exploitation of the peasantry had been quite unsurpassed in its intensity. The establishment of this exploitative regime had been accompanied usually by direct annexations, which gave the East India Company control over the bulk of the surplus; and the extraction of this surplus had been entrusted to a new upstart class of “tax farmers” who replaced in most instances the old landlord class. It is this which turned the old landlord class against colonial rule, and induced it to assume the leadership role in the peasant uprising that constituted the essence of the 1857 revolt.


While characterisations of the revolt as a mere “sepoy mutiny”, or as a religious war, or as a series of local, albeit patriotic, uprisings joined together without any overarching “national”, or more accurately proto-national, consciousness, are completely off the mark, and while the term “first war of independence” remains the most apt description of it, the structural limitations of this anti-colonial proto-national peasant revolt, must also not be lost sight of.


Peasant revolts, even though caused invariably by acute distress unleashed by rapacious regimes, and marked invariably by remarkable instances of courage, noble heroism and awe-inspiring sacrifice, are nonetheless rarely system-transcending on their own. Chinese history for instance is marked by a litany of remarkable peasant revolts, which brought down eight of the ten dynasties that have ruled over that country through its long history, including the dynasty that built the Great Wall of China on the basis of forced labour of the peasants. And yet none of these peasant revolts succeeded in achieving a system-transcending breakthrough until the peasant revolution led by the Communist party. In short, peasant revolts, unless led by the basic classes of modern society, namely either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, do not succeed in breaking out of the immanence of the society that produces such revolts, even when they are militarily successful. And when such a peasant revolt occurs against an exploitative order that has been imposed by a “modern” imperialism fuelled by the accumulation of capital in its metropolitan base, and it is itself not led by either an emerging bourgeois class or by a revolutionary proletariat, even the chances of its military success against imperialism, remain bleak, as was the case in 1857.


Karl Marx who keenly followed this revolt may not have explicitly anticipated its outcome, the way he did in the case of the American Civil War, where he predicted, against Engels’ military judgment, that the North, representing the emerging bourgeois interests that constituted the harbingers of a new and materially advanced mode of production, would triumph over the South. But he certainly had doubts about the rebel army’s capacity to defend Delhi, as is evident from his article on August 4, 1857, in the New York Daily Tribune. Frederick Engels who wrote in the Tribune of December 5, 1857 at Marx’s request on “The Capture of Delhi”, mentioned the fact that sepoys “entirely lacked the scientific element without which an army is nowadays helpless, and the defence of a town utterly hopeless.” Both Marx and Engels were deeply sympathetic to the resistance of the rebels, but appear on the whole to have been rather sceptical about their victory prospects, as they were confronting an enemy armed with modern “scientific elements”.


Notwithstanding the immense courage and the sacrifice of the rebels, notwithstanding the glorious audacity of the forces of resistance that took on the might of an empire, the fact that they represented a pre-modern outlook certainly worked against them. True, among them there were individual visionaries who anticipated a modern society and produced remarkable manifestos about a new, post-British India. But just as the classical bourgeois revolution in Europe had within it already a communist vision, e.g. Winstanley in the English Revolution, but this fact did not erase the bourgeois stamp of the revolution, likewise the existence of individual modern voices among the ranks of the rebels did not obliterate the fact that the anti-colonial revolt still had a pre-bourgeois stamp upon it. This was its historical weakness, and in the ultimate analysis perhaps the cause of its failure.


This fact raises an important issue in the present context. Today once again we have the spectre of a re-colonialisation of the world economy, under the hegemony of an altogether new entity, international finance capital, which differs in crucial respects from the finance capital of the earlier period. The hegemony of international finance capital is associated once again with an attack on the working class everywhere, and on the peoples of the third world, in particular the peasantry. The drastic squeeze on the peasantry, leading to mass suicides over large parts of India, is too well-known to need recapitulation. But India is not the only country where such a squeeze is taking place. Whether it is Latin America, or Eastern Europe, or Africa, or West and South Asia, we see everywhere a massive agrarian crisis that is bringing forth peasant resistance in various forms. Now, the question that may arise is this: since the working class in the third world is invariably small, by virtue of the very fact of these economies being underdeveloped, and since the bourgeoisie in these economies is collaborating with imperialism in the current epoch, are such peasant resistances necessarily doomed to failure? And if so, then would it not be better to wait until the process of industrialisation, even under the current conditions of imperialist hegemony with a collaborationist bourgeoisie, has thrown up a sufficiently large working class, which can then provide the leadership to a mighty anti-imperialist struggle, anchored in the mass resistance of the peasantry?


The answer to this question however must be an emphatic “no”, for two very obvious reasons. First, peasant resistance does not wait for anybody. It is not a conspiracy but a fact of life. The form it takes depends upon the general class context, but the fact of its happening cannot be delayed by anyone at will. It is not like a tap that can be turned on or off at will. For instance, the weakness of the Left in Iran, following the CIA coup that installed the Shah, and the hegemony of the mullahs subsequently, implies that the anger of the peasants against imperialism is channeled into forms that are Islamicist in character. It is this anger that underlies the rise of President Ahmedinejad to power and continues to sustain him. What stamp is imprinted on peasant resistance, in short, depends upon the class context; the resistance itself does not wait for the “right” class-context.


Secondly, as several instances in the twentieth century have demonstrated, “modern” peasant revolutions, even in the absence of a numerically strong working class, can still take on a system-transcending character, in so far as they are led by a Party informed by the proletarian world outlook and the theory of Marxism-Leninism. Such a possibility had been widely discounted by many revolutionaries in the 1920s. It was feared for instance that if peasant army that had operated in the countryside, cut off from the cities, emerged victorious in its area of operation and entered the cities, then it would get into a situation of conflict with the urban proletariat; that instead of a democratic revolution based on worker-peasant unity we would have a conflict between the workers and the peasants. The conclusion drawn from it was that any peasant revolution had to be actually led by the proletariat in order to prevent such a possibility. What twentieth century experience, notably that of the Chinese revolution, showed was that the leadership over the peasant revolution by a working class Party could make such a revolution into a system-transcending one. It follows from this experience that the development of a working class to a certain numerical size is not a pre-condition for a revolution anchored in peasant resistance to succeed in the current epoch, when the “historical process as a whole”, including the transcendence of capitalism, has been theoretically comprehended.


When we look back upon 1857, while admiring the awesome courage of the rebels and their heroic resistance against imperialism, we cannot but be struck by the differences in the conjuncture between then and now. Today’s imperialism, today’s peasantry, today’s class structure, including in particular the development of capitalism and the fact of the emergence of a sizeable working class, are all a far cry from what existed in 1857. But in addition to all these, and indeed above all these, there is the overwhelming fact that today we armed with a revolutionary theory based on a comprehension of the “historical process as a whole”, the pioneers of which were actual witnesses of the 1857 revolt and wrote about it with such remarkable sympathy and understanding.