Violence and revolution


back to issue

THIS note attempts to understand the nature of the politics behind the violent actions of the Maoists. There seems to be agreement among human rights activists that Maoist violence is a ‘forced’ response to the extreme repression of the Indian state. The argument is that since the Indian state has been consistently ignoring or violently repressing various people’s movements, the people are left with no choice but to take recourse to the gun.

There is a fallacy in this argument. We know about many people’s movements on issues of land rights or displacement which have not turned into armed insurrections, even though they have suffered major losses and have been treated in a very callous manner by the state. Apart from the Narmada Bachao Andolan there are hundreds of big and small peoples’ resistance movements in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and other states which have not given up on the ‘parliamentary’ path of struggle.

Interestingly, we find that Maoist groups are also active in these areas and they constantly try to infiltrate and take control of such movements. Moreover, we do not know of any movements organized by the Maoists which were initially ‘peaceful’ but compelled to turn to arms after all attempts at working with the state failed. I would suggest that the theory of ‘peaceful’ movements mutating into ‘violent’ insurrections appears flawed. Also that instead of using ‘Maoist’ as an adjective in a careless manner, we should treat them as a political formation organized on the lines articulated in its political programme and constitution which is based on its own Marxian theory of revolution which is impossible without violence.

Reading Marx and his interpreters – ranging from Lenin to Zizek – one cannot miss the fact that the use of violent methods is inherent in the Marxist schema.1 All the actions of the CPI (Maoist) flow from their programme. These should be treated as part of decisions of different organs of this formation working under a single command and not as spontaneous reactive acts of the masses in general.

The CPI (Maoist) constitution declares that its immediate task is to accomplish a New Democratic Revolution and that the ultimate aim is the establishment of communist society: ‘Immediate aim or programme of the Communist Party is to carry on and complete the new democratic revolution in India as a part of the world proletarian revolution by overthrowing the semi-colonial, semi-feudal system under neo-colonial form of indirect rule, exploitation and control and the three targets of our revolution – imperialism, feudalism and comprador bureaucratic big bourgeoisie. The ultimate aim or maximum programme of the party is the establishment of communist society.’


One needs to note that the New Democratic Revolution is only the first stage of a series of revolutions. But even this first stage of the ‘New Democratic Revolution will be carried out and completed through armed agrarian revolutionary war, i.e. the Protracted People’s War with area-wise seizure of power remaining as its central task. The Protracted People’s War will be carried out by encircling the cities from the countryside and thereby finally capturing them. Hence, the countryside as well as the Protracted People’s War will remain the centre of gravity of the party’s work from the very beginning.’

To leave no scope for confusion and misinterpretation, the programme of the party makes it clear that, ‘Since the armed struggle will remain the main form of struggle and the army as the main form of organization of this revolution, the armed struggle will play a decisive role. The united front will be built in the course of advancing armed struggle and while for this mass organizations and mass struggles are necessary and indispensable, their purpose is to serve the war. The immediate and most urgent task of the party is to establish full-fledged People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and base areas by developing and transforming the guerrilla zones and guerrilla bases.’


Mass organizations cannot be underground. They’ll be outwardly patterned after other democratic organizations but the ultimate aim is to subvert the democratic system and not to strengthen it. But this is only one aspect which applies to those mass democratic bodies which are floated by the ‘party’. Similarly, there are other mass struggles, like Nandigram or the initial phase of the Lalgarh movement, which though not initiated by the party, nevertheless had ‘revolutionary content’. The party should make use of their revolutionary potential to expand the base of its armed struggle. These movements help increase the divide between classes and later the party can claim them as its own.

Thus struggles by adivasis for forest land rights would be used to sharpen the polarities. Those who feel that it was the CPI (Maoist) which started these struggles have simply not cared to either read them or follow the trajectory of these movements. People in any case are to be instrumentally used.

The famous Maoist dictum to swim as fish in the sea of people should not be forgotten. Masses and mass struggles serve as a useful cover for the revolutionaries. It would be interesting to know when the Maoists first discovered their love for the adivasis, since by any Marxist canon they cannot be the bearers of the ‘most advanced consciousness.’ They are, in fact on the lowest rung of the historical ladder that Marxism proposes. They are even ‘less conscious’ than those still beholden to land. They can, therefore, only be used to further the cause of socialist transformation with an inevitable, intermediate capitalist stage to be achieved by the New Democratic Revolution.

The CPI (Maoist) believes that history has assigned it the job of bringing ‘real democracy’ to India. Its programme asserts that the present parliamentary democracy in India is fake since, ‘In our country, parliamentary system was imposed by British imperialism from above. Moreover, bourgeois democratic revolution too has not been completed here. Hence, no bourgeois democracy ever came into being here.’ The duty of the CPI (Maoist) is, therefore, to complete the democratic revolution first and then immediately move on to the next step, without any respite.

The party programme identifies four main contradictions in the Indian society: ‘(i) contradiction between imperialism and Indian people; (ii) contradiction between feudalism and the broad masses of the people; (iii) contradiction between capital and labour; and (iv) contradiction among the ruling classes.’

It explains that the first two of these are basic and have to be resolved in the present stage of New Democratic Revolution through ‘the armed agrarian revolution, which is the axis of the new democratic revolution, that is, protracted people’s war.’ This armed struggle would in turn facilitate the ‘resolution of other contradictions.’


The CPI (Maoist) is averse to any participation in the parliamentary process as it is tantamount to ‘abandoning the tasks of building and advancing the armed struggle. The reality is that without people’s political power everything is illusion. The people’s political power can be established and advanced only through the path of protracted people’s war.’ It believes that the advancement of the people’s consciousness is also closely associated with armed struggle.

Armed struggle, therefore, remains at the heart of its political programme. The characterization of the parliamentary process in this programme should sound familiar to communist parties of all shades as at some point of time in their history all of them have defined it in the same way. A comparison of the constitutions and programmes of the other three major communist parties, i.e., the CPI, the CPI(M) and the CPI(ML) with the policy documents of the CPI (Maoist) shows that all of them treat the present democratic structure as an interim one which would ultimately have to be abolished, as the final goal of all communist parties is to establish a socialist society. Barring the CPI, the rest agree that this is possible only under the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The programme of the CPI(M) says, ‘The Communist Party of India (Marxist) firmly adheres to its aim of building socialism and communism. This, it is evident, cannot be achieved under the present state and bourgeois-landlord government led by the big bourgeoisie. The establishment of a genuine socialist society is only possible under proletarian statehood.’


The CPI(M) participates in the parliamentary democratic processes but makes it clear that this is only to achieve the ‘immediate objective, the establishment of people’s democracy based on the coalition of all genuine anti-feudal, anti-monopoly and anti-imperialist forces led by the working class on the basis of a firm worker-peasant alliance.’ It requires the replacement of the present bourgeois-landlord state by a people’s democracy.

There is a possibility that this change might happen in a peaceful manner but the party programme stresses that the ruling classes have never voluntarily relinquished power. It therefore advises its followers to be vigilant and ‘so orient their work that they can face up to all contingencies, to any twist and turn in the political life of the country.’ How they would do it is not made explicit, but it certainly does not rule out the possibility of use of arms, if need be, not only to move up to the next step of socialist order but even to safeguard the historical achievements of the party.


Unlike the CPI (Maoist) and the CPI(ML), the party programme of the CPI(M) does not speak about an armed wing of the party. It leaves it to the imagination of the party leadership and members. It does not use the word war but does talk about the ‘protracted’ nature of the revolutionary struggle that the party will have to wage. Thus it says: ‘To realize the aims of the people’s democratic revolution through the revolutionary unity of all patriotic and democratic forces with the worker-peasant alliance as its core, is a complicated and protracted one.’ We are not sure if the CPI(M) repudiates the theory of protracted war, but its recent actions in Bengal do indicate that it is not averse to arming part of its cadre so that it can ‘face up’ to any ‘contingency’. The clandestine nature of the task is not a matter of concern as the programme does speak about ‘extra parliamentary forms of struggle’ which is a category wide enough to include armed forms of struggle, depending on the nature of the contingencies.

The CPI(ML) Liberation, which came overground nearly two decades back, after having spent nearly twenty five years as a revolutionary party fighting parliamentarianism and ‘right revisionism’ of the CPI and the CPI(M), ‘does not rule out the possibility that under a set of exceptional national and international circumstances, the balance of social and political forces may even permit a relatively peaceful transfer of central power to revolutionary forces.’ One needs to note that peaceful transfer is not normal; it is in fact an exception to the rule. The rule is that the reactionary forces would violently resist any change in the power structure. If this is true then the need for armed resistance remains.

The political programme of the CPI(ML) concedes that under normal circumstances, communists have freedom to operate in the Indian parliamentary system. However, the task of a true communist party would be to utilize the gains made in this process to usher in a people’s democratic revolution. This can be done only by skilfully ‘mastering and combining various forms of struggle’ by developing a ‘comprehensive revolutionary practice through an organic combination of illegal and legal, secret and open and extra-parliamentary and parliamentary forms of struggle and organization.’

Even when participating in the parliamentary process, ‘The party of the proletariat must fully prepare itself for accomplishing the revolution by securing and sustaining the ultimate decisive victory in the face of all possible counter-revolutionary attacks. A people’s democratic front and a people’s army, therefore, remain the two most fundamental organs of revolution in the arsenal of the party.’


Does the CPI(ML) continue to maintain armed squads? Is it part of the illegal forms of struggle? The programme is self-explanatory on these questions. It is clear that the CPI(ML) continues to have a troubled relationship with parliamentary democracy. The feeling that it has been forced by ‘objective circumstances’ to conform to democratic rules gnaws at its heart and the itch remains. While participating in the mass democratic movements, it cannot forget that these are inferior forms of struggle; the supreme form of armed struggle has simply receded into the future, not been abandoned. Without it the revolution is not possible.

Armed action is, therefore, not at the core of the political programme. Yet, though unlike the CPI (Maoist), the CPI(ML) has relegated it to a secondary position in its programme, it continues to treat violence as a part of its fundamental activity. The current inaction on this front is only a tactical halt; maybe a long one. While taking the parliamentary path, the party did not bother to explain as to what fundamental change in the objective conditions of Indian polity and state necessitated this change of strategy. How did the parliamentary path, which was till yesterday despicable, become useful? Was it fatigue after a long underground life that forced the party to join parliamentary democracy like other ‘revisionist’ parties it had criticized, or was there a realization that armed guerrilla action would not succeed in Indian conditions and remain an incessant war without any victory?


All the communist parties, including the CPI (Maoist) talk about creating a united people’s front. But they never discuss the reasons of their failure to do so effectively. Is a crude and inept application of the united front theory of Dimitrov responsible for their failure?2 Whatever the reason, the history of the communist movement in India shows their inability to lead a united front of workers, peasants, petty bourgeoise and national bourgeoise – thereby failing in their historical duty of completing the long overdue bourgeois revolution. The CPI (Maoist) also talks about forging a united front, but claims that, ‘This united front will be built in the course of advancing the armed struggle and for the seizure of political power through armed struggle.’ This front would remain subservient to the party and the army and would not be allowed to have a leadership and programme of its own.


Reading the programmes of these parties closely, one finds that more than the objective conditions of India, it is their desire to relive the Leninist moment in India which drives their policy formulation and strategies. There is tremendous confusion in these programmes regarding the nature of Indian democracy. They tend to confuse the Indian Parliament with the Russian Duma. Lenin’s criticism of the Duma to justify its boycott is routinely invoked to legitimize their non-participation in and opposition to the Indian parliamentary system. Similarly his change of stance and participation in the Duma is used to justify their participation in the parliamentary politics.

The real problem seems to be in understanding the moment of creation of the Indian Parliament. The Duma with limited constitutional rights was conceded to the Russian people by the Tsar. Can Indian communists claim, as Lenin did, that ‘the workers would never forget that it was only by force... that they wrested from Tsarism a recognition of liberty in a paper manifesto?’ The Indian Constitution for the Indian revolutionary communist is that paper manifesto. But was the Indian Parliament wrested by force by the workers? Is India an autocracy? The CPI (Maoist) claims that it is an autocracy under the garb of democracy and therefore the Leninist argument that peaceful, legal means would not be effective holds true even for India.

The advantage of Lenin is that he can be invoked in both conditions. Rustam Singh in his essay, ‘Violence in the Leninist Revolution’, has with great clarity shown that Lenin dealt with the issue of armed struggle in a strategic manner. His subsequent advocacy of a skilful, timely and flexible combination of methods of coercion and conciliation gives communist parties sufficient cover for a change in their policies. For them, quoting Lenin to support their position is sufficient.


Ambiguity on the question of use of violence and terror in the Marxist schema creates scope for arbitrariness in its application. Though scholars of Marxism have long argued for a need of a limiting principle in this regard, this is precisely what communist parties do not want. Communist parties, being the ‘bearers of the most advanced revolutionary consciousness’, believe that have been bestowed by History the job of developing the productive forces of the society, and that they alone have the right to interpret the texts. But with so many communist parties around with varied interpretations of the same texts, which one is to be followed?

The answer would be different depending on the nature of the party we are talking about. The most or truly revolutionary party would obviously be the one that has not given up the path of armed struggle. This is because the real task of a communist party is not merely to bring about revolution or structural changes but, as explained in a brilliant study of the problem of violence in Marxist thought from Marx to Zizek by Christopher J. Finlay in his essay, ‘Violence and Revolutionary Subjectivity’, it is primarily to achieve ‘true humanity through the moral reconstruction of the subject. Violence is part of this process, not merely an instrument that can be used to create circumstances in which it may happen.’ The use of violence is moral because of ‘its authentic relationship with revolutionary subjectivity.’ As the programme of the CPI (Maoist) explains, armed struggle cannot be given up as it is essentially linked with the task of developing revolutionary consciousness in the masses.


The problem every communist party faces is how to bring about ‘the transformation of the oppressed victim into an active agent’, best captured by Marx’s famous statement ‘that the emancipation of the proletariat can only be the act of the proletariat itself.’

Slavoj Zizek justifies the need of revolutionary violence as it helps the proletarian to learn to care for himself. Zizek would argue that the CPI (Maoist) or any other communist party, in varying degrees, are right to suspect parliamentary democracy because it seeks to create, in Sorel’s words, ‘social peace’ by offering short term partial relief. By doing so, ‘it takes away the means by which true liberation may ultimately be achieved, i.e. the violent impulse to rebel.’

The CPI (Maoist) would claim that it stands for what Zizek calls an ‘anticipatory-liberating solicitude’ as opposed to a ‘substituting-dominating solicitude.’ It would help the oppressed to help themselves, leading to automatic liberation. Violence in this scheme is imperative as it helps the proletariat fashion a revolutionary subjectivity for itself. What is needed is to create and sharpen polarity between classes. The spell of dominance over the proletariat can only be broken by the constant use of arms and violence. The justification for armed struggle or violent movement is not to be sought from the outside; nor should one even talk about its efficacy on the basis of its outcome. The justification comes from within.


The communist parties have always longed for a re-enactment of the Leninist moment in their own countries. The storming of the Winter Palace is part of that mythical moment. But since it is not yet possible to storm the Indian Parliament, all they can do is to keep storming the symbols of the oppressive Indian state, the small winter palaces. According to Zizek, one should not ask for what the final outcome is, for the future is already being lived in the present. This is, he explains, an enactment of Utopia:

‘In a genuine revolutionary breakthrough, the utopian future is neither simply fully realized, present, nor simply evoked as a distant promise which justifies present violence – it is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short circuit between the present and future, we are – as if by Grace – briefly allowed to act as if the utopian future is (not yet fully here but) already at hand, there to be seized. Revolution is experienced not as a hardship over which the future happiness and freedom already cast their shadow – in it, we are already free even as we fight for freedom; we are already happy even as we fight for happiness, no matter how difficult the circumstances. Revolution is not a Merleau-Pontyan wager, an act suspended in the future antérieur, to be legitimized or delegitimized by the long-term outcome of present acts; it is, as it were, its own ontological proof, an immediate index of its own truth.’

I have tried to argue that the very scheme of a revolution which is to be carried out by a communist party carries within itself the seeds of violent struggle. It is not only to bring about revolution, but more importantly to give agency to the oppressed classes. The oppressed cannot be expected to go on fighting on the promise of some glorious future. They have to experience it now. Hence, the establishment of janata sarkars and janata adalats. Without experiencing power they cannot be expected to will for it. Communist parties who abandon this path are renegades precisely because they have abdicated this historical responsibility. They are, therefore, more dangerous than class enemies because they keep distracting the proletariat from its revolutionary course. It thus becomes a revolutionary duty to clear the path by eliminating such distraction.


The CPI (Maoist) refuses to be judged by the morality of human rights perspective because in its view there are no universal human rights. Revolutions generate their own living principles as ‘real life’ has not yet begun. Communist parties who have veered away from this course are no longer communists. It is also theoretically impossible for them to criticize the CPI (Maoist) because Marxism treats violence as a strategic issue.

The history of the communist parties in India is replete with instances of parties once wedded to violence, leaving this path by offering some justification at some point in their revolutionary career. But the germ remains and gives birth to a new armed party. Do we have to wait for the CPI (Maoist) as well to drop its obsession with violent struggle at some future point, like its worthy predecessors? But then it would also be the moment of the birth of a new revolutionary avatar, a party adorned with arms, which will ‘take the armed struggle forward.’



1. I base my arguments on the detailed studies by Rustam Singh, ‘Status of Violence in Marx’s Theory of Revolution’, Economic and Political Weekly 24(4), 28 January 1989; Rustam Singh, ‘Violence in the Leninist Revolution’, Economic and Political Weekly 25(52), 29 December 1990, and Christopher J. Finlay, ‘Violence and Revolutionary Subjectivity, Marx to Zizek’, UCD Geary Institute Discussion Paper Series, 11 January 2006,, last accessed on 14 February 2010.

2. The reference is to Georgi Dimitrov, Bulgarian leader of the Communist International who is credited with proposing a United Front against Nazism and fascism.