Magan Desai - 1929-2012

The death of Magan Desai on 10th May 2012 signals the termination of an age in the history of Indian Trotskyism. The tragedy of Desai was that for a long period he built a type of Trotskyist party, committed to certain Marxist principles, but was also largely responsible for the ruin of a once promising organisation.

Desai began his political career in the CPI. A trained architect, he became a full timer. In the late 1950s, confronting Cold War attacks on Soviet communism, he came to realize that notwithstanding the political intentions of the Cold War writers, it was not possible to ignore the charges they were levelling. As a result, he started becoming critical of the USSR and Stalinism. At the same time, his revolutionary commitment meant he was not enamoured by the seemingly more liberal, but also more openly reformist wing of the CPI. He sided with the minority which split at Tenali, but in a critical manner. At the same time, his membership of the CPI in his early life left a permanent mark. On one hand, he valued the need to build a serious political organisation oriented to the working class, not merely a group of student or ex-student youth. On the other hand, the CPI, despite the formal Stalinist ban on factions, had always been a party full of undeclared factions. Factionalism, secret caucusing, non-political clique building, all these were political practices the CPI passed on to its fragments. Desai too had learnt many of these lessons, and in later life would be unable to discard them all. By the mid-1960s, it was evident to him that their revolutionary rhetoric marked a stronger Stalinism. He therefore left the CPI(M), with an open letter entitled Why I Resigned from the CPI(M). At this point, the scattered Indian Trotskyists were making their most ambitious regroupment effort, resulting in the formation of the Socialist Workers Party. Its General Secretary at that moment was Murlidhar Parija. Desai joined this group and rose to its leadership.

The late 1960s was a period of mass radicalization, and the SWP tried to insert itself into it, without losing Marxist commitments. As a result, unlike the countrywide peasantism, the SWP stressed the building of a working class revolutionary party, the development of proletarian cadres, and the need to ensure working class independence. In Gujarat, Desai was one of the principal architects, along with Thakore Shah, a former Gandhian turned Trotskyist, in building the party. They were assisted by a radical lawyer from Jamnagar, Sharad Jhaveri. Gradually, a group of workers were brought together, and when they could no longer remain in the AITUC, they formed the Vadodara Kamdar Union. The Nav Nirman movement of the 1970s also enabled the party to recruit a number of radical youth. By this time, Desai had come to see, in the International Trotskyist movement, the SWP (USA) as the defenders of orthodoxy against dangerous lines pushed by the United Secretariat majority, which seemed bent on adventuristic guerilla warfare. For an Indian Trotskyist, wary of the Naxalite movement, it was not an unnatural position to take, though in West Bengal, the majority supported the IMT and often sided, seemingly, with the advocates of armed struggle in India. Desai remained a full-timer in the Trotskyist movement, as a leader of the SWP, then of the CL, and finally of the ICS.

The small Trotskyist organisations could never pay full timer wages. As a result, in his case specifically, the responsibility for maintaining him fell entirely on his wife and then of his daughter. This was a matter of some concern and dispute for the feminists in the ICS, who always felt that the contribution of Ushabehn was persistently belittled. The long years of international infighting within the Fourth International over guerrilla warfare, orientation to the student youth radicalism in West Europe, etc, sadly, reinforced the kind of factional politics that Desai had already learnt in the CP. The CPI, a Stalinist party, had always formally rejected factionalism. But it simply meant that instead of recognising factions as groupings that sometimes unavoidably form in a party due to differences in political stances, the CPI tolerated (as the CPI and the CPIM still do) hidden or covert factions. Though some political differences were involved, all too often these were personalised factions (e.g., the factions of Promode Dasgupta et al vs that of Biswanath Mukherjee et. al in West Bengal in the undivided CPI, or the recent Vijayan faction versus the Achuthanandan faction in the CPIM in Kerala). Factions in the USFI were different. The international factions in the 1970s were over different appraisals of tactics and strategy for guerrilla warfare, over the Portuguese revolution, and other serious political matters, The Indian organisation was divided, with West Bengal solidly with the International Majority Tendency and the majority all over India, led by Desai, in favour of the Leninist Trotskyist Tendency anchored by the US SWP.

But the Indian majority experience of factional fighting reinforced in Desai a permanent factionalism. In later times, within the Fourth International, he would repeatedly gravitate to members or groups upholding ultra left positions, and would enter into or try to form secret tendencies, caucuses etc. This was linked to a growing rigidity of tactical line over party building. James P. Cannon was held up as the ideal party builder, but based on a very mechanical reading of The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, rather than on Cannon’s actual abilities and activities. Disregarding the Indian political reality, a stress on looking at certain classical texts posed a serious problem. At the same time, the SWP, which had renamed itself Communist League, found itself in political difficulties. The proclamation of the Emergency by Indira Gandhi saw one trend deciding that the situation was so bad that fighting within the 20 point programme was called for. This line was repudiated. But another trend arose, which felt that in order to defeat Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship it was necessary to support electorally the bourgeois opposition. Desai opposed this as crossing the class lines. In Vadodara, the CL put up Thakore Shah as its candidate in 1977. But debates continued, and by 1980 had led to a significant split. Comrades recruited in Britain and earlier on closer to the IMT, joined hands with comrades who were in the CL, including a senor comrade like M. Rashid, the veteran Kerala Trotskyist, and formed the Bolshevik Leninist Group. Within the CL, a new generation of leaders began emerging, and in course of common work in the working class movement they tried to unite with the BLG. In 1984, the unification did occur. Desai had an ambivalent attitude to the merger. He saw the new group as ex-IMTers, or as ex-CLers who had left the party and were somehow suspect. Also, he had a workerism that involved a deep distrust of intellectuals. The BLG for its part had a number of talented intellectuals, who were however unused to working in a disciplined manner for a common goal.

In the early years the united organisation, the Inquilabi Communist Sangathan, had state units and members in ten provinces of India, and significant mass work. From the 1990s, there was a decline, partly because many of its members were unable to do serious teamwork; and partly because the dogmatic style of Magan Desai. In addition, many ex-Stalinist and ex-Maoists were recruited, and one faction in West Bengal showed that they had simply replaced the Stalin-Mao cult by the Trotsky cult. By the end of the 1990s, the ICS was a much shrunken organisation. The final crisis came after the Gujarat carnage of 2002, when a faction around Desai attacked the most well-known anti-communal and civil rights activist members of the party as self-seeking individuals. The Conference of 2003 saw Gujarat, led by Desai, rejecting a delegate session, so it was unclear how many members were actually in ICS. Desai’s narrow and sectarian workerism meant that despite formal acceptance of many political documents, he was hostile to real understanding of feminism, of environmental activism and the need to integrate it in proletarian strategy. As a result, time and again, he thought he was upholding the proletarian line, but his action was one of building secret factions with poor political lines. His support to the ex-Maoist ultraleft faction, though he drew back at the end, resulted in a severe blow for the West Bengal unit. The hidden and unpolitical faction he built over environmentalism and against Thakore Shah and a number of other comrades, and in which a clear narrow mindedness and non-revolutionary approach was discernible within his faction, damaged work in Gujarat. After 2003, ICS virtually ceased to exist as a real political entity.

Desai was responsible for promoting the translation of a considerable body of Marxist literature into Gujarati. He built up a publishing house cum book store, the Antar Rashtirya Prakashan.

Desai is survived by his wife Ushabehn and his daughter Rajal.

- Kunal Chattopadhyay