Anarchism or revolutionary Marxism?


back to issue

COMMENTATORS and politicians have romanticized, eulogized and demonized ‘Maoism’ in many superficial ways; the point however is to soberly evaluate and develop a correct political approach to it in light of its actual course of evolution in a given historical setting and its present praxis. This is an attempt to do so within a framework of the long history of interface/overlap between anarchism and revolutionary Marxism or more generally between petty bourgeois and proletarian revolutionism since the days of the Communist League and the International Working Men’s Association (First International). Here the term ‘anarchism’ will be used in the sense or senses in which the founders of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong thought encountered it in their practical work, that is in the course of organizing the working people for revolution, and hence also in theory, as outlined below.

‘…the anarchists tried to obtain the lead of the International by the foulest means,’ wrote Engels a month after the death of his famous friend, ‘ever since 1867 and the chief obstacle in their way was Marx,’ who ‘did the most to procure their expulsion’ at the end of a tough five-year struggle.1 Engels was referring to the Bakuninists, who held that the abolition of the bourgeois state was the immediate task which the workers were to carry out, not by forming a workers’ party, not by political struggle, but by ‘direct action’. In Engels’ words, ‘...since for Bakunin the state is the main evil, nothing must be done which can keep the state... alive. Hence, complete abstention from all politics. To commit a political act, especially to take part in an election, would be a betrayal of principle…’2 


Anarchism continued to resurface in newer forms in different countries. In Russia, for example, anarcho-syndicalists rejected ‘petty work’, especially the utilization of the parliamentary platform, and held that workers could capture factories and seize power through trade unions without a disciplined proletarian party. Other ultra-left trends also got mixed up with anarchism to produce various shades of ‘petty bourgeois semi-anarchist (or dilettante-anarchist) revolutionism.’

Contrasting anarchism against Marxism, Lenin wrote:

‘Anarchism is bourgeois individualism in reverse… Anarchism is a product of despair. [It is the] psychology of the unsettled intellectual or the vagabond and not of the proletarian… Failure to understand the class struggle of the proletariat. Absurd negation of politics in bourgeois society. …Failure to understand the role of the organization and the education of the workers. …Panaceas consisting of one-sided, disconnected means. …Subordination of the working class to bourgeois politics in the guise of negation of politics.’3 

This is how, in different ways, in different climes and times, ‘petty bourgeois revolutionism, which smacks of anarchism, or borrows something from the latter’ tends to get mixed up with other alien tendencies and crops up ‘in somewhat new forms, in a hitherto unfamiliar garb or surroundings,’4 at times within, at times alongside, the revolutionary communist movement.


In our country, anti-British terrorist/anarchist trends, like those against Tsarist autocracy in Russia, were in existence well before the foundation of the Communist Party of India. Later, most of these forces joined the CPI. Following a short spell of left adventurism under B.T. Randive (1948-50), and then a few years of centrist ambivalence, the party adopted what its left-wing viewed as right opportunism or parliamentary cretinism. Rebellion against these led to the formation of the CPI(M) in 1964.

In the wake of the Naxalbari uprising (May 1967) revolutionaries came out in numerous groups all over the country and joined forces in the AICCCR (May 1968) and then CPI (ML) (April 1969). The only major group that stood apart from both was the Dakshin Desh group (so named after a Bengali magazine published by it), which became the Maoist Communist Centre in October 1969. Gradually, and after the setback of the early 1970s, they rapidly abandoned peasant struggles for squad activities mainly in forest and mountainous regions, even as they spread beyond West Bengal. Later on certain like-minded groups joined them, such as the Punjab-based Revolutionary Communist Party, the ‘Second CC’ in 2003, leading to the formation of Maoist Communist Centre of India (MCC I).

While this original ‘Maoist’ body remained the main repository of ultra left/anarchist activities, similar trends emerged within and around the CPI(ML) also. This occurred in three distinct phases.


In one of his celebrated classics (‘Left-wing’ Communism – An Infantile Disorder), Lenin showed how left-adventurist trends emerged in the course of struggles against right-opportunism during the formative period of communist parties in different countries at the end of the second decade of the 20th century. He saw this as a normal teething trouble (‘infantile disorder’) that could lead to catastrophic consequences unless cured in time. A similar phenomenon was to be observed in our country too during the formative years of CPI(ML).

Charu Mazumdar (CM), the founder of CPI(ML), was no advocate of isolated and exclusive armed action – for him the two key phrases were ‘integration with the landless rural poor’, and ‘politics in command’. (As we shall see below, Maoists have delinked the whole question of arms from this essential context and have thus moved beyond the purview of the CPI(ML), finding it necessary to choose new names to describe their ideology and organization).

He developed a clear cut proletarian framework of armed struggle: extensively propagate the total politics of seizure of power and build concentrated areas of anti-feudal peasant movement; establish the leadership of landless and poor peasants as the vehicle of proletarian leadership over the peasant struggle, and rely on them rather than on party organizers from petty bourgeois backgrounds for unleashing a militant peasant movement; encourage peasants to arm themselves with locally available weapons rather than sophisticated fire arms; combine different forms of struggle – e.g., mass seizure of crops – with armed attacks on class enemies and the state, and so on.


Charu Mazumdar cautioned comrades against the dangers of isolation from the broad masses and the national mainstream if base areas were to be built in mountainous or forest regions and drove home the need and feasibility of developing bases in the plains. On this question, as on many others, he was keen on developing the distinct features of an Indian path of revolution. With a rapid surge in the revolutionary movement, he came to place increasing emphasis on the fight against anarchist ideas and practices, such as militarism and infatuation with ‘actions’. When students and the youth in Calcutta were celebrating the festival of revolution in their own – often adventurist – ways, CM personally met and placed before them ‘only one task: go among workers and landless and poor peasants – integrate, integrate and integrate with them.’5 

‘Annihilation of class enemies’ emerged as a new form of struggle in the heat of Srikakulam peasant movement as it sought to combine, with some success, the beginnings of armed struggle with broad mass mobilization. In certain pockets this led to the formation of peasant squads, mass upsurges and some agrarian reform measures. The valuable experience thus gained would subsequently help build sustained armed peasant struggle in Bhojpur and neighbouring regions in central Bihar. But in many areas annihilation was wrongly conducted as a ‘campaign’, with a lot of indiscriminate and unnecessary killings, in the process getting isolated from peasants’ class struggle. These were serious left deviations that did tremendous harm to the people and revolution.

But owing to factors like overestimation of the revolutionary situation, generalizing the form of struggle suitable for some areas for every corner of the country out of subjective wishes, infancy of the party and impetuosity on the part of the leadership as a reaction to revisionist betrayal, corrective measures were not taken and the infantile disorder grew into a fatal disease with the first CPI (ML) Congress (May 1970) declaration that ‘class struggle, i.e., annihilation will solve all our problems.’ CM later realized that annihilation had been taken too far and tried to formulate a policy of organized retreat in the shape of a united front of labouring people, particularly people belonging to left parties, against the Congress regime; but it was too late.


Among the many splinter groups into which the CPI(ML) was split after the total setback of 1971-72, some tried to rectify the left-adventurist deviations while carrying forward the revolutionary tradition, which they considered to be the principal aspect. Others repudiated the whole tradition in the name of rectifying the mistakes, and a few fell back on the deviations, as it were, to bring back the revolutionary days simply by mimicking the past.

Thus it was that petty bourgeois anarchist trends, which remained submerged in and indistinguishable from the overall upsurge, now crystallized into distinct formations like Mahadev Mukherjee’s group, the Second CC, COC(PU) (subsequently CPI(ML) Party Unity) and so on. We call these groups semi-anarchist in the sense that they still had one foot in the CPI(ML) tradition of anti-feudal struggle even as they were moving in the direction of progressively abandoning class struggle for sensational squad actions. The same was more or less true for the MCC.

The semi-anarchist groups went through a long and complex process of coming together and falling apart to give rise to several short-lived and relatively few stable combinations. The CPI(ML) People’s War (PWG for short) was founded in 1980. There was a long and tortuous course of three-way unity talks among MCC, PWG and PU, frequently interrupted by internecine clashes including a ‘black chapter’ (as the concerned organizations called it after the merger). In 1998 PU merged with PWG. Then in September 2004 the two ‘Maoist’ formations merged to form the CPI (Maoist). The long process of centralization of semi-anarchist groups around two centres – the MCCI and PWG – was thus brought to culmination. The quantitative growth and enhanced strength led to a qualitative leap too: the unified body started its solitary journey tangentially away from the CPI(ML) trajectory as an anarcho-militarist sect.

This characterization, as we hope to show below to the extent possible in a limited space, traces so-called ‘Maoism’ back to its basic ideological roots (anarchism), brings out its most important specific feature or manifestation (militarism, or ‘the purely militarist viewpoint’6 in the words of Mao Zedong) and underscores the deviation from the revolutionary legacy of CPI(ML).


Let us take a look at the main thrust and USP (unique selling point) of Maoist politics – the kidnapping, political killings, raids on police stations, destruction of railway stations and tracks and so on. This brand of politics runs, and can only run, on the strength of guns and a vast network of extortion economics. A huge ‘levy’ is regularly collected from contractors and brick kiln owners, tendu leaf merchants, other industrialists and businessmen, illegal forest produce dealers and coal and iron ore miners, corporate houses and bureaucrats. With a manifold increase in the flow of funds into rural areas for various governmental and NGO projects, Maoists now find it convenient to share a slice of this development cake too. The CPI (Maoist) has no qualms about this dependence on big money, which runs counter to the cardinal Maoist principle of reliance on the masses.


Even if the big amounts gathered through extortion are sought to be legitimized as ‘tax’, the problem is that by paying ‘tax’ the vested interests earn a license to loot and exploit, and a patron-client relation often develops between them and the ‘tax’ collector, while the masses are inevitably discouraged, even restricted, from launching movements against the exploiters. Maoist sensationalism thus flourishes at the cost of class struggle even as it adds to their coercive power and ‘authority’. It is such pecuniary interests again which prompt them to kill activists of other left parties (including other CPI(ML) groups) willing to work in what they consider their fiefdoms.

Politically too, they are too sectarian and authoritarian to allow others in ‘their areas’. As a report by the Human Rights Forum pointed out, ‘Any one practising alternative politics of any kind runs the risk of being dubbed an agent of the state, and dealt with accordingly…’7 


The Maoist credo of election boycott – a ridiculous attempt to wish away the parliamentary system and a clear denial of Leninist policy on the question – is well-known.8 But they too have a stake in which party forms government. So they cannot avoid taking part in electoral politics. But they do so in their own distorted ways: indirectly, secretively, conspiratorially; usually by supporting one ruling or would-be-ruling party against another, which is pragmatically conceived as ‘main enemy’ at that moment.

This tactic-turned-strategy (as they view it; see their document Strategy and Tactics) was most ‘successfully’ implemented in Andhra Pradesh in the 2004 assembly elections. They enforced a one-sided boycott on TDP and BJP while canvassing in favour of the Congress candidates and the ‘success’ lay in the fact that Chandrababu Naidu, whom they had earlier tried to eliminate by pure ‘Maoist’ means, was now removed from power by parliamentary means and a friendly Congress government installed. It is another matter though that after some apparent progress in the talks that ensued, the friend suddenly turned hostile and launched a repressive campaign even more ferocious than that of Chandrababu Naidu.

In Bihar, during the Lalu era, the Maoists were widely known as ‘RJD during the day and Maoists by night.’ In many places they would mobilize votes and manage booths in favour of RJD candidates while trying to damage the prospects of rival contestants, CPI(ML) nominees in particular. Acting in collusion with the then ruling RJD and the local police administration, they attacked the CPI(ML) office at Paliganj, Bihar, in August 2004 – barely six months before the February 2005 assembly elections – killing five comrades in their sleep at the dead of night and officially justified the killings.


In Jharkhand, where the erstwhile MCC already had a long and nasty record of killing CPI(ML) comrades, Maoist squads allowed themselves to be utilized by the ruling BJP and the notorious SP of Giridih in gunning down thrice-elected CPI(ML) MLA Mahendra Singh during the election campaign in January 2005. In the recently held assembly elections, the dozen or so ex-Maoists who contested did so on the JMM ticket. Incidentally, the official Maoists too are reported to have helped the JMM in many areas.

In West Bengal, they used their firepower in Nandigram to clear the ground for the entry of TMC; subsequently too, they have trained their guns mainly on CPI(M) cadres. In September 2009, Politburo member Kishenji even went beyond this to express his party’s open preference for Mamata Banerjee as the next chief minister of West Bengal. In recent months, Mamata Banerjee, now that her purpose has been served and she finds herself within striking distance from the coveted seat of power in West Bengal, has step-by-step distanced herself from the Maoists; but that only proves her cunning, not any principled position on the part of CPI (Maoist).

Even if we set aside the aspect of secretive, indirect participation, abstention from politics – particularly from participation in elections – invariably boils down to subordination of the working people to bourgeois politics. This, as Lenin pointed out, constitutes a basic feature of anarchism because you just cannot cut yourself off from cross-currents of dominant politics of the day, which can only be bourgeois politics in the present condition.

This subordination can happen in either of two ways: when the masses are left to the mercy of bourgeois electoral propaganda alone (since the ‘revolutionary party’ is absent from the scene) or when the latter, rather than fielding its own candidates and contesting independently, supports parties like RJD or Congress with an eye to some temporary gains for itself. The Maoists are masters of both methods.


The document Strategy and Tactics states that ‘…from the very beginning, our orientation, perspective and the method of building mass organizations and mass struggles should be to serve the war directly or indirectly.’ How this obsession with ‘war’ – i.e., partisan armed action against the state and/or the ruling party isolated from the natural objective course of peasant struggle and other popular movements – can destroy the potential of a vibrant mass movement has been most glaringly borne out in Lalgarh.

The General Secretary of CPI (Maoist) admits that the people’s movement in Lalgarh was a spontaneous one and the party ‘played the role of a catalyst.’9 He also said, ‘The people of Lalgarh had even boycotted the recent Lok Sabha polls, thereby unequivocally demonstrating their anger and frustration with all the reactionary ruling class parties.’

This second claim is a naked lie. The adivasis, like most people in Nandigram, were eager to vote, but without letting the hated police in their villages. So on their behalf the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA) proposed that booths must be set up outside the villages where police boycott was still on. The government had to concede this demand and the people voted en masse, with the authorities providing free transport.


And what was this ‘role of catalyst’?

Like peasants in Singur and Nandigram who rose in arms against state-sponsored corporate land grab, adivasis in Lalgarh revolted against police atrocities demanding an apology from and punishment for guilty officials. As in Nandigram, tens of thousands of women and men with their traditional weapons actively created their own liberated zone of sorts, very different from Maoist guerrilla zones that exist on the strength of firearms of guerrilla squads. It is this mass dimension that placed Lalgarh in the proud category of Singur and Nandigram and earned for it great support from all corners of India and abroad. However, the Maoists managed to take over the reins of the movement from the PCAPA and mark it with typical Maoist features like kidnappings, serial killings, often with barbaric features such as murdering a teacher in front of schoolchildren, compelling the body of a slain CPI(M) cadre to rot under the sun for days together, and so on. In the process, much of the movement’s broad democratic appeal was lost and its distinct political voice muted, while the state government found what it was looking for: a pretext for launching the crackdown.

Today the valiant adivasi masses are still carrying on their struggle against the state-Centre joint paramilitary campaign, but unless the movement can free itself from Maoist influence and reassert its independence, it stands the risk of being eventually subsumed by the ruling class agenda, whether in the name of ‘restoration of law and order’ or ‘delivering development and good governance.’ Destroying the spontaneous dynamism of the masses in the name of armed struggle goes against Mao’s revolutionary mass line and constitutes the root cause of why Maoists can never build real, broad mass organizations. Lalgarh proves this once again.


Our characterization does not in the least deny that the CPI (Maoist) has developed a wide base among adivasis by dint of painstaking work over a long time. They also strike a chord of sympathy and support among a section of students and intellectuals with revolutionary leanings. In their main areas of work they sometimes mobilize hundreds or a few thousand people in their militant programmes. For all this, they remain anarchists – in their abstention from mainstream politics, i.e. capitulation to bourgeois politics, especially during election times; aloofness from the available democratic space and fetishization of the underground; refusal to form/work in democratically functioning mass organizations; terrorist actions, including attempts on the lives of chief ministers, which take us back to the early phase of revolutionary terrorism in India’s freedom movement.

This is about the general political content of anarchism. As for the concrete manifestation in the form of militarism, it appears and reappears, in the full glare of media publicity, as a series of sensational military actions – and, in theory, as feudal-bourgeois war mongering in reverse, as an exclusively militarist articulation of strategy and tactics, as a doctrine of subordination of everything to a war in permanence.


Overall, the most crucial characteristics noted by Lenin in the quotation from Anarchism and Socialism should be easily discernible to anyone familiar with Indian Maoists: individualistic work style of dalams and federative nature of the organization (much like anarcho-syndicalism, where sections of workers and their trade unions worked under separate controls) with state and regional units operating autonomously in matters of extortions, executions etc, leading to frequent cases of ‘mistakes’ admitted later by top leaders (as in the case of Francis Induwar’s murder in Jharkhand and attacks on polling officials in Chhattisgarh); reckless actions causing unnecessary inconvenience, even death, to common people;10 acts of heroism frequently interspersed with cases of surrender and betrayal leading to arrests of senior leaders (like Kobad Ghandy) and major losses caused by adventurism (as in Andhra Pradesh); the exclusive panacea of squad actions – which they use not only to settle scores with class enemies and the state, but also to settle political debates with communist revolutionaries (recall numerous cases of murderous attacks on our comrades, including one on the house of comrade Nagbhusan Patnaik) and so on. These features unmistakably bring out the class character of anarchism: despair and desperation of ‘the petty bourgeoise driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism.’


With their dogmatic adherence to the Chinese path, the Maoists negate the very essence of Mao’s method. Mao had to conduct a firm struggle against Chinese dogmatists, who despite severe losses were bent upon blindly copying the Russian model in Chinese conditions. The famous formulation of Mao on the integration of the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete conditions of China arose only in the course of this struggle. Our ‘Maoists’ gloss over the huge differences between Indian and Chinese conditions, and by upholding and absolutizing one part of Mao’s teachings (political power growing out of a gun) in isolation from the other part (party, that is ideology and politics, commanding the gun), they in effect turn the whole thing upside down. Similarly, from the rich experience of the application of Mao Zedong Thought in Telengana and Naxalbari-Srikakulam, they have isolated the armed dimension (the element of squad activities) from the mass dimension (the element of broad peasant movement).

By indulging in reckless anarchist acts, the Maoists are also making it easier for the state to drum up support for harsh measures of repression, which is then easily extended to all kinds of ‘off-stream’ movements. From the standpoint of broad left and democratic movements, we must therefore draw a clear line of demarcation between the ‘Maoist’ variety of anarchism and ‘revolutionary Marxism’, even as we unite to resist the state’s growing politico-military offensive against the fighting masses and the draconian attacks on whosoever the authorities consider to be members and sympathizers of CPI (Maoist).



1. Letter to Phil Van Patten (24 January 1872) Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, p. 341.

2. Engels to Theodor Cuno (24 January 1872), Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, p. 258.

3. ‘Anarchism and Socialism’, Collected Works of V.I. Lenin, volume 5, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1978.

4. Ibid.

5. ‘Notes Taken in a Meeting With Student Comrades’, Collected Works of Charu Mazumdar, published by CPI(ML) Liberation.

6. ‘This viewpoint,’ wrote Mao in On Correcting Mistaken Ideas in the Party (Selected Works of Mao Zedong, vol. I, pp. 105-116) ‘regard[s] military affairs and politics as opposed to each other and refuses to recognize that military affairs are only one means of accomplishing political tasks. Some even say, "If you are good militarily, you are good politically; if you are not good militarily, you cannot be any good politically" – this is to go a step further and give military affairs a leading position over politics... The sources of the purely military viewpoint are... a low political level... the mentality of mercenaries... overconfidence in military strength and absence of confidence in the strength of the masses of the people... Mao also resolutely opposed "the ideology of roving rebel bands" and "putschism" or "blind action regardless of subjective and objective conditions." He pointed out that "In its social origins, putschism is a combination of lumpen-proletarian and petty bourgeois ideology".’

7. Death, Displacement and Deprivation: The War in Dantewada – A Report, Human Rights Forum, 2006, Hyderabad.

8. See V.I. Lenin, Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, in Collected Works, vol. 31, pp. 17-118, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964; and Lenin, ‘Against Boycott’ in Collected Works, vol. 13, pp. 15-49, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978.

9. Ganapathy’s interview in Open magazine, October 2009.

10. The lack of concern for people’s lives stood out in an interview of Politburo Member Bimal in Mint (22 June 2009):

Mint: A lot of civilians might die in the crossfire. Wouldn’t you be morally responsible for those killed?

Bimal: In a war, there are no civilians – there are people either on your side or against you.