CHATTO – an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolutionary
The League Against Imperialism (LAI) 1926-31.
In the mid 1920s, Chatto was fairly well known in Berlin as a leader of the Indian community, a journalist and an anti-imperialist activist. He assumed added importance from being the brother of Sarojini Naidu, who became the President of the Indian National Congress (INC) in 1925.
But it was his political orientation that broadened his outlook and gave it an international perspective. This orientation owed much to the activities of Willi Munzenberg (1889-1940), a media mogul, communist member of the Reichstag, and a well known expert propagandist and organiser of aid for the Soviet Union through IAH (Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe), i.e., Workers’ International Relief. In 1925 Munzenberg began to shine a light on the cruelties and infamies visited on the colonial and oppressed peoples by colonial powers and he founded the League Against Colonialism (LAC). Taking the hint from the Comintern journal Inprecor, and following the brutal suppression of a general strike in Shanghai, Munzenberg formed the League Against Cruelties and Oppression in the Colonies in early February 1926. The LAC, formed earlier, merged into the new organisation. The aim of the new organisation was to conduct a systematic campaign in the imperialist countries against the evils of colonialism.
Germany was well suited for an organisation of this type because of the German bourgeoisie’s reluctance at the time to reveal openly its ambition to acquire colonies, as well as because of the presence in Berlin of several thousands of students and refugees from many colonial countries who were imbued with revolutionary, nationalist and communist ideas. Chatto took an active part in the work of this organisation and became a close friend of Willi Munzenberg.
With the help of Soviet trade unions and the Norwegian and Austrian sections of the IAH, Munzenberg managed to collect $250,000 for food and clothing for the newly-created section of the IAH in Peking. On 16 August 1925 he held a Congress in Berlin under the slogan: ‘Hands Off China’, aimed at binding the proletariat of the west with that of the east.
The success of the Congress on China persuaded Munzenberg to create a permanent organisation to bring together the representatives of freedom movements in the colonies with their friends in the colonialist countries. The result was the creation of the League Against Cruelties and Oppression in the Colonies. Chatto, with his fluency in English, German, French and Scandinavian languages, as well as his involvement in Indian politics and his connection with Nehru, was of great assistance to him. In early March 1926, Chatto, along with the labour organiser, Ladislas Gibart of Hungary, was busy circulating material about the impending Congress to the leaders of national movements in several colonial countries. The aims of the Congress were:
· A full enquiry into the working conditions in the colonial or semi-colonial countries;
· The initiation of an international protest movement against the cruelties and oppression committed by the military forces of the imperialist powers;
· The organisation of an international relief action in favour of the most endangered nations that were in need of moral and material support;
· The linking up of all forces fighting against imperialism and the establishment of permanent relations between all important parties and political groups conducting this fight.
The guiding idea of the impending Congress was that the proletarians of the imperialist countries must support the struggle of the oppressed nations if they were serious about proletarian revolution and the overthrow of capitalism in their own countries.
Having received favourable replies from several important national movements, it was decided to hold the Congress in Brussels, the French authorities having made it very difficult to hold it in France. Emile Vandervelde, the socialist foreign minister of Belgium, gave permission on condition that, in its proceedings, the Congress would not deliberate on the Belgian Congo!
Nehru, who was in Europe with some of his family, was persuaded by Chatto to attend the Brussels Congress, and he received permission from the INC (Indian National Congress) to do so.
The Brussels Congress 10-15 February 1927
The Congress at the Palais d’Egremont in Brussels was an impressive display of internationalism. It was attended by 174 mandatory delegates and 300 visitors from134 organisations from 37 countries, including India, China, Indonesia, Korea, Indo-China, Japan. North America and Latin America were represented as were North and South Africa.
The agenda of the Congress covered four categories:
1. Reports on imperialist oppression in the colonies by the representatives from the colonies;
2. Information regarding support given by the labour movement and progressive parties in imperialist countries to the liberation movements in the colonies;
3. Co-ordination of the aforementioned movements;
4. the creation of a permanent, international organisation to coordinate the forces fighting against imperialism.
On the first day, S O Davis of the British Miners’ Association was in the Chair and prominent speakers included Nehru (INC), Liau (KMT), Henri Barbusse, Katayama – the veteran Japanese communist and Fenner Brockway (Secretary of the Independent Labour Party). Although the situation in the Dutch, Japanese and French colonies was discussed during the following days, the principal theme of the Congress was the role of British imperialism in India and China. Apart from underlining the significance of India to British imperialism, Nehru spoke of the shame and sadness of Indians at the sight of Indian soldiers being sent to subjugate the Chinese.
Many British delegates – Harry Pollitt, George Lansbury and Fenner Brockway – spoke of the dreadful conditions in India and China, and denounced the Labour government of the time. On the final day of the Congress, several resolutions were passed, including one in support of India’s complete independence. In the same resolution, the hope was expressed that the Indian National movement would make the emancipation of the Indian workers and peasants the basis of its programme, for without such emancipation there could be no real freedom.
In a joint statement, the representatives of Britain, India and China agreed to:
(a) fight for the full emancipation of the oppressed countries;
(b) oppose all coercion of the colonial peoples;
(c) vote against all credits for the maintenance of armed forces to be used against colonial peoples;
(d) expose the horrors of imperialism and expose imperialist policy in the context of the struggle of the working class for its own social emancipation.
In another resolution they:
(i) demanded the immediate withdrawal of all armed forces from Chinese territories;
(ii) urged the need for direct action and the imposition of an embargo to prevent movement of munitions and troops from India to China and vice versa;
(iii) demanded unconditional recognition of the National government; and
(iv) demanded the surrender of foreign concessions.
In a joint declaration, the Indian and Chinese delegates agreed on the need to conduct active propaganda in India to educate and rouse the Indian people to support the Chinese people’s struggle and establish close coordination and cooperation between the two peoples.
MacDonald’s Labour government was harshly criticised for its attitude towards the colonial people, especially as MacDonald at the end of the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International had voted in favour of complete independence for the colonies.
Speaking towards the end of the Congress, Munzenberg announced that 30 delegates, representing all the parties and organisations at Brussels, had resolved unanimously to establish a permanent body to be called the League Against Imperialism and for National Independence (LAI).
The statute and programme of LAI were presented and adopted with complete unanimity.
Under its provisions, all political organisations, parties, trade unions and individuals who were willing to fight for national liberty of all peoples and equal rights for all races were to be allowed to affiliate to the League.
An impressive number of distinguished people, including Albert Einstein, Henri Barbusse and Madame Sun Yat-sen, were attached to the League. The Executive Committee included, among others, Nehru (India), Lin Han-sim (China), S Saklatvala (Britain) and Diego Rivera (Mexico).
Although the international secretariat was constituted by Munzenberg and Chatto, the actual burden of running the League’s central office in Berlin fell mainly to Chatto.
The LAI and the Chatto-Nehru connection
Following their meeting in Berlin in 1926, Chatto and Nehru came to cultivate close friendship and mutual respect, admiration and affection. This friendship, lasting until 1930, proved fruitful for both of them. Chatto introduced Nehru to the world of the labour movements, the essence of imperialism, Marxism and radical ideas – his mind took a big step forward.
For Chatto, his friendship with Nehru gave him the opportunity to forge political links with India. Further, Chatto entertained the hope that a radicalised Nehru might be able to orient the Indian national movement in a radical direction with total independence as its aim. His friendship with Nehru, and through Nehru the reinforcement of his ties with India, was a source of great comfort to him as it followed his painful separation from Agnes Smedley, bouts of depression, nervous breakdowns, straitened conditions of existence, and the never-ending pursuit by the British secret police which had obliged him to hide from house to house for many months.
Nehru’s sister Krishna described Chatto as: ” …clever, gentle, charming and one of the most sociable characters I have ever met … Even when stark hunger faced him round the corner, he never lost courage. Many a time when all he had for his lunch was a couple of apples, he would insist on sharing it with some poor Indian student who was also hard up …” (Krishna Hatheesing, ‘With no regrets’, 2nd edition, Bombay 1952, pp. 40-41).
It was politics – an agreement on the future course of the Indian national movement – which underpinned the Chatto-Nehru relationship within the context of the LAI-INC collaboration.
Nehru had not failed to realise, even at that early stage, that the objectives of the Congress which set up the LAI fully accorded with the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, but he was not bothered by this for he saw two advantages to India from the work of the League:
First, it would provide an avenue for the INC to keep in touch with very many countries in Asia and beyond which faced problems similar to India’s; and second, the League could be an effective instrument for publicising the Indian national movement and spreading its struggle far and wide.
The affiliation of Soviet trade unions provided the League with a steady income to be able to do its work meaningfully, but Chatto and other non-communists realised very early on that this financial support might come with certain political obligations.
From its inception, the League had to face the hostility of the Second International and the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which carried on a relentless campaign of vilification against it. Having abandoned their pre-war stance on the colonial question and joined their imperialist bourgeoisie they were not inclined to look kindly upon the League’s activities.
On top of this, the League had to face persecution of its members by imperialist governments, which barred the circulation of the League’s literature in their territories, and confiscated correspondence between the League’s Secretariat and the colonial organisations.
Nehru tried to radicalise the Indian movement. Although the Madras Congress of the INC, held in December 1927, endorsed the affiliation of the INC to the LAI, Nehru failed to push through a resolution committing the Congress to complete independence. The reactionary old guard, led by Gandhi, would not go beyond recommending Dominion status for India. This decision was taken at the December 1928 Congress session in Calcutta.
Nehru, as a result, went on to form a pressure group within the Congress Party – the Independence for India League (IIL) – to mobilise public opinion in favour of complete independence. He became very popular with the younger generation of Indian nationalists. However, he achieved little because of his inability or unwillingness to go against the wishes of Gandhi.
Chatto suggested to Nehru that it was time for action outside of the INC; that Nehru should convert his IIL into a branch of the LAI; that the IIL should develop outside of the INC.
Nehru never considered a separate organisation as distinct from the INC. He was trying to strengthen the national movement by introducing the message of socialism. Further, Chatto urged Nehru to galvanise all anti-imperialist forces to rally round his IIL and reach a clear understanding with the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party (WPP) for a common programme aimed at securing a majority in the INC and with it to promote “our own programme”.
At the beginning of 1929, Nehru assumed work as the general secretary of the INC. Never much interested in Gandhi’s quirks about spinning, he made a serious effort to create consciousness among workers and peasants in favour of independence.
Meanwhile, the British Indian authorities, alarmed at the growth of the trade union movement and the interest shown by some trade union leaders in affiliating with the LAI, arrested all the leading trade unionist revolutionaries in the various parts of India and brought them to Meerut in 1929 to stand trial for conspiracy “to deprive the King-Emperor of the sovereignty of British India”. The purpose of the trial was, first, to nip in the bud the rising revolutionary movement aimed at the expulsion of British imperialism from India and, second, to discredit the accused in the eyes of the nationalists. But the Meerut trial failed to cause the intended rift between the INC and the LAI.
In parallel with these developments in India, the 10th Plenum of the EC of the Comintern (ECCI) in July 1929 directed the communists in India to disband the WPP and concentrate on building a Communist Party apart from the INC.
At the same time, the Second World Congress of the LAI, held from 20-31 July 1929 in Frankfurt, took some serious steps of their own. The manifesto published by it on this occasion stated:
” One of the most fundamental tasks of the world movement against imperialism, without which no victory is possible, is the creation of a firm alliance between the oppressed colonial peoples, the revolutionary workers of the imperialist countries, and the workers and peasants of the Soviet Union” (quoted in Barooah, Chatto – the life and times of an Indian anti-imperialist in Europe, Oxford University Press, Delhi 2004, p.261).
At the Frankfurt Congress, left social democrats in the imperialist countries, as well as socialist delegates from colonial countries, were subjected to sharp criticism for merely mouthing anti-imperialist slogans while in effect supporting imperialist governments.
Nehru learnt of these developments, of Albert Einstein’s resignation, and of the social-democrat James Maxton’s removal from the Executive Presidentship.
Nehru was very alarmed, as was to be expected, by the tone of Chatto’s explanation of Maxton’s removal. Justifying Maxton’s removal, Chatto wrote:
” It is sheer Imperialist intrigue to say that Maxton’s expulsion was due to the desire of the Communists to dominate the League. As a matter of fact, no sincere Nationalist can wish to be associated with persons and organisations that use radical phrases merely to deceive the subject peoples and gain time for imperialism. The National Congress, in fact, ought to greet the expulsion of Maxton as a sign that the British League and the League in general do not intend to tolerate any form of half-heartedness or hypocrisy in the struggle” (ibid. p. 263).
Reflecting the overwhelmingly negative opinion of the INC in the LAI and the Comintern, Chatto impressed the need for a mass anti-imperialist umbrella body in India in the following words:
“I certainly think it must be admitted that it [the INC] does not cover large sections of the population who are organised in separate bodies for specific purposes but which are nevertheless very important anti-imperialist elements. I need only refer to the TUC, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, the Youth League etc. … What is necessary today is to have a federation of all these organisations which would unite them all in action and give them all the same clear anti-imperialist lead … Please think over the possibilities of organising an All-Indian Anti-Imperialist Federation during the December week” (ibid. p. 263).
Notwithstanding his radical rhetoric, at heart Nehru was an anti-communist bourgeois leader, as subsequent events were to reveal all too clearly over the following decades. He was therefore much troubled that communist influence had won over in the League.
In early November 1929, Chatto again complained about Gandhi’s malign influence and domination in the INC and Nehru’s surrender to him. Learning of Nehru agreeing to preside over the Lahore session of the INC, Chatto wrote to Nehru:
” When the cunning Mahatmaji proposed your name for the Presidency of the Congress, it was obvious that it was a move to kill you and the opposition. The interpretation in the country is quite false. The very fact that nine votes were cast for Gandhi is the best evidence that the Right Wing elements and compromisers had the majority. In your new position of President elected on the initiative of Gandhi, your hands will be completely tied, and any action that you might otherwise have taken as a leader of the independence movement will be paralysed by the necessity of having to remain impartial inside the Congress.” (ibid. p. 264).
Just as Chatto was writing these words, Nehru had affixed his signature to the understanding between the Viceroy and Gandhi, pledging the Congress to attend a conference, together with the Indian princes, to discuss the question of Dominion status for India.
“How could it be possible for any serious politician to be taken in by the deceptive promises of the MacDonald government?”, Chatto protested.
Nehru was totally defenceless against Chatto’s reasoning and told him that he largely agreed with his criticism. He added that he had, by way of a protest, resigned from the Congress working committee, but his resignation had been turned down. Since, he added, the Congress was planning a great political offensive at the end of they year, he felt unwilling to cause fresh difficulties at this critical moment.
Chatto and the LAI found Nehru’s answer unsatisfactory and he castigated Nehru thus:
” Whatever your reasons may be to explain away your surrender to the traitors who are negotiating for their own class interests, I myself cannot see why you did not proffer immediate resignation. That would have rallied all the youth, the workers and peasants to your side and you would have been able to defeat easily the compromisers in the Congress … It is a fundamental error to think that unity in the Congress is more important than the vital interests of the masses. And having risen to be the undoubted leader of the youth of the country and to enjoy even the confidence of the working masses, you seem in a moment of inexplicable weakness and mental confusion to have left your followers in the lurch” (Chatto to Nehru, 4 December 1929).
Chatto pointed out that it was indefensible for Nehru to advocate independence as the president of the AITUC while pleading for Dominion status as the would-be president of the INC. He suggested the following way out of the dilemma:
” Do what great leaders have often done, namely, publicly admit a mistake and take the right line. If you do this today, withdraw your signature, and make your position as President of the Congress as an opportunity for breaking up the sham unity which is so dangerous, driving out all moderate and Dominion Status men and capturing the whole Congress apparatus for the uncompromising struggle against imperialism, you will have more than retrieved your lost position” (Barooah, p.265).
In a letter dated 30 January 1930, Nehru answered:
” I am afraid you are often very much misled by some of your correspondents in India. I can well understand a difference in outlook. If this difference is fundamental then cooperation is difficult. If there is a fair measure of agreement then it is desirable to work together. In any event it does not help matters much by calling people with whom you may happen to disagree little traitors and the like. Perhaps if you came in personal contact with some of our most aggressive young men who pose as workers’ leaders you might change your opinion of them” (ibid. p. 265).
On the same day, Nehru wrote officially to the LAI secretariat. This letter ended for all practical purposes the collaboration between the INC and the LAI.
At the League’s Executive Committee meeting in Berlin (May 1931), Nehru and other non-communist members who had resigned were formally expelled. In 1931, the international secretariat moved to France. As Chatto was already barred from entering that country, Clemens Dutt replaced him in the secretariat.
In his letter to Nehru of 26 February 1930, Chatto admitted to his allegiance to communism. His conversion to communism, it would appear, took place only after the Frankfurt World Congress of the League in June 1926, although he had long sympathised with it. Until then, he had declared himself an Indian nationalist revolutionary, and everyone round him regarded him in that same light.
With this conversion he embraced the theory of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Three years of collaboration with Nehru, albeit a radicalised one, seemed to have furnished enough proof of the futility of entertaining faith in the bourgeoisie. He concluded that the Indian bourgeoisie could be reformist at best and perpetually compromising at worst. Thus it could not be expected to wage a determined struggle against imperialism.
He abandoned his faith in the bourgeois democratic process and embraced violent revolution as the means of effecting fundamental change.
Following his conversion to the cause of communism, Chatto wrote many polemical articles, including one on unemployment in India. He concluded that “the only improvement” in the lot of workers, peasants and the educated middle class ” is possible by the complete overthrow of imperialism and the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ republic” (Inprecor, 6 March 1930).
In the summer of 1930 he wrote two articles – one condemning the Second International for its India policy, the other castigating the nationalist leadership of India for its attitude to the Indian revolution. The Second International, on the pretext of ” the civilising effect of imperialism under a socialist regime”, refused to back the independence struggle even of the developed colonies. Against the false anti-imperialists of the Second International, Chatto declared that the Soviet Union was the only genuinely anti-imperialist state in the world (‘India and the Second International’, The Pan-Pacific Monthly (San Francisco), June/July 1930).
His total disappointment with the perpetually-compromising Congress leaders must have played a crucial role in Chatto’s acceptance of communism, leading him to come down on the side of the Soviet camp.
In his biting criticism of the compromising stance of the Congress Party, Chatto spared no one – neither Gandhi nor his own sister, Sarojini Naidu. When the latter assumed the leadership of the Congress, Chatto wrote:
“Mrs Naidu, however, is a mere puppet who is placed in charge of the theatrical side of the campaign [for independence], while the wiser and cleverer heads are keeping their hands free for negotiations with the imperialist government” (‘The Indian revolution and the nationalist leaders,’ Pan-Pacific Monthly no 37, June/July 1930, p.15).
Chatto then went on to expose the various leaders of the Congress as betrayers of the cause of Indian independence, to expose their hypocrisy by laying bare the gulf between their words and deeds. He found it abominable and disgusting that these leaders were signed up for attending the Round Table Conference (RTC) scheduled to be held in London in the autumn of 1930 to discuss with the liberals, princes and British representatives the future of India.
Realising that the then recently-published Simon Commission Report, tens of thousands of copies of which were printed and circulated by British imperialism, was to be the basis of discussions at the RTC, Chatto tore this document to shreds in an article he wrote for the Labour Monthly, bringing to public attention the real purpose behind this report. He wrote:
“And the conclusion to be drawn about ‘this variegated assemblage of races and creeds’, this ‘congries of heterogeneous masses’ that is known as India, is that the 320 millions inhabiting that extraordinarily disrupted and chaotic country ought to be thankful to British imperialism for having given them a ‘common government’ and protection from ‘foreign invasion'” (‘Faked Indian statistics as imperialist propaganda’, The Labour Monthly, September 1930).
The Simon Commission, relying on a dodgy dossier of statistics, was an attempt to convince even the sceptics of the benefits of British rule in India. It pointed to the allegedly insurmountable difficulty of devising a Constitution to suit a land of 320 million people with 560 native states, nominally independent, 222 separate languages, two main hostile religions (168 million Hindus and 60 million Muslims in British India alone), and 10 million outcasts.
Being an expert linguist, Chatto dealt with the problem of 222 languages, cited by the British authorities as a complete obstacle to Indian aspirations for independence, by reference to the Soviet example, saying that the existence of an even greater number of languages in the vast territories of the workers’ and peasants’ state had posed no obstacle in the establishment of a strong, independent centralised government, while maintaining the fullest possible cultural autonomy of linguistic and national groups.
In another article on the INC, Chatto maintained that the downtrodden masses and the revolutionary youth of India regarded Gandhi as a traitor ( The Labour Monthly, May 1931).
The main target of Chatto’s attacks was imperialism, especially British imperialism. When Britain and the USA started a campaign against ‘forced labour underpinning Soviet industrial growth’, and tried to prevent the entry of ‘tainted’ Soviet products into their markets, Chatto wrote a very informative article, with detailed information about the brutal British exploitation of convict labour in the Andaman Islands in order to increase the yield of important varieties of timber which fetched high prices in Europe and the USA. He also referred to similar practices in French settlements.
“When, therefore”, he concluded, ” any imperialist opens his mouth about forced labour in the Soviet Union, the blood-soaked timber of the Andamans should be thrust down his hypocritical throat” (‘Timber export and forced labour in the Andaman Islands’, Inprecor, 22 October 1931).
In another article, written in 1930-31, Chatto expressed his outrage at the fact that Liberty, a journal published from Calcutta and which served as a mouthpiece for Subhash Chandra Bose, printed words favourable to Japan:
” These shameless words were written by members of an oppressed subject nation less than two weeks before the Japanese bandits broke into and occupied Manchuria, and in spite of the fact that Japanese imperialism has been carrying on its regime of oppression, exploitation and brutal terror in Korea and Formosa for over 22 years, and has systematically been violating the integrity and independence of China and intriguing and conspiring towards its dismemberment” (‘Buddhism in the service of Japanese and British imperialism’, The Anti-imperialist Review, Jan-Feb 1932).
As the executive secretary of the LAI, Chatto strongly believed that it was impermissible for the nationalists of one oppressed nation to betray the freedom of other oppressed nations by allying themselves with one imperialism against another in accordance with the adage ” the enemy of our enemy is our friend”.
In August 1931 Chatto, on the advice of Georgi Dimitrov who had been head of the West European Bureau of the Comintern in Berlin since 1929, with the assistance of the Soviet ambassador in Berlin, left Germany for the Soviet Union.
The Nazis, who had emerged as the largest party in the Reichstag in September 1930, were irreconcilably hostile to communists and opposed to the Indian national struggle for independence.
As per an agreement between Dimitrov and Dimitri Manuilsky, secretary of the EC of the Comintern, Chatto was to be engaged in one of the several sections of the Comintern in Moscow.
Being aware of Chatto’s deep interest in linguistics and ethnography, Sergey Mironovich Kirov suggested to the EC of the Comintern that Chatto be sent to Leningrad to join one of the institutes of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Eventually, after a good deal of discussion, Chatto was assigned to the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnography (IAE), then headed by the communist, Professor Nikolay Mikhailovich Matorin. He joined IAE on 1 March 1933 as a research assistant and was also made the head of the Indian section of the Institute. His knowledge of English, German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Persian and several Indian languages was of great help to him and to the Institute he had joined.
At the Institute, Chatto was expected to acquire sufficient knowledge of ethnography and its allied fields AND to interpret that knowledge in the light of Marxist-Leninist theory and principles.
Chatto turned out to be an exceptionally quick learner and came to enjoy a well-deserved authority and trust, not only among the leadership of the Academy but also the party and Soviet organisations of Leningrad. He returned the generosity and warmth shown in Leningrad by doing educational work, teaching Hindustani and by active participation in the Union of Militant Atheists. On the international day of MoPR (International Association for Aid to Revolutionary Fighters) on 18 March 1934, traditionally observed on the day of the Paris Commune, a huge conference was held in the hall of the Academy of Sciences dedicated to revolutionary movements in capitalist and colonial countries. At this conference, Chatto made a speech in which he elaborated on his involvement with the Indian independent movement in Europe. In his speech, he recalled how he had missed a long-awaited interview with the great Lenin because of the intrigues of M N Roy, as well as Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Radek.
On 1 February 1934, he was promoted to the position of specialist ethnographer. After having been at his job a mere 6 months, Chatto gave a talk in Russian in September 1933 at an academic seminar of the IAE on The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, by Engels, and the importance of this work to understanding the process of historical development of the original communist society. Chatto’s talk made a great impression on the members of the Academy, as did the fact of its delivery in Russian.
Then came the preparation by the IAE of the journal of Soviet Ethnography in 1934, with scientific essays devoted to the 50th anniversary of the publication of Engels’ book. The volume carried a note and two substantial review articles by Chatto in Russian, which clearly revealed his deep knowledge and grasp of the subject. In these he criticises some of the translations of Engels’ book as being either incomplete or unsatisfactory. He also found it amazing that although Marx and Engels lived in Britain and played an active part in the working-class movement, not a single translation of the work had been published in that country, with the result that the only translation available in English was by Ernest Untermann, published by Charles H Kerr & Co in the US. His surmise was that either it was because there was no market for such a book or that the publishers were so thoroughly poisoned by bourgeois ‘sociology’ that they were simply incapable of fighting against it.
Having said that the task of translation ought to be undertaken by socialists since even the best and most radical of bourgeois scholars could not appreciate the significance of the existing class struggle, Chatto went on to say that Untermann had failed to do complete justice to Engels’ work – a work which, following Lenin, he characterised as one of the pillars of modern socialism whose every sentence should be read with avidity and confidence. He further stressed that the translator ought to have a thorough knowledge of the translated language as well as the language into which the translation is made. Moreover, he ought to have a full understanding of the subject.
Chatto commented upon the characteristics of the bourgeois ethnography since the commencement of the epoch of imperialism – characteristics which played an important role in the service of imperialism. In this context, he exposed the Jesuit school of ethnography and anthropology headed by Fathers Schmidt and Koppers in Austria, as well as similar Anglo-Dutch-American missions who worked closely with state civil servants engaged in ethnographic surveys and who conducted a campaign against Engels and Morgan, infecting the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia sympathetic to the working-class movement with a spirit of hostility to the teaching of Engels – thus constituting a grave danger to the proletarian movement.
In defence of Marx and Engels against the influence of bourgeois scholarship
Chatto’s articles in the commemoration volume secured his position as a scholar in the Soviet Union. He is sure to have received Russian citizenship for his later writings carry his name in the Russian style – Virendranath Agoronatovich Chattopadhyaya. Encouraged by these developments, Chatto continued with great zeal to propagate harmonisation between scholarship and the Party interest.
In 1935 Soviet Ethnography published a 10,000-word long review by Chatto which consolidated his position as a serious Marxist scholar. This was a review of a compilation – from the Archive of Lewis Henry Morgan – by one of his colleagues at the IAE, I N Vinnikov, head of the Australian Department, and published by the Academy of Sciences. In this critical review, Chatto took Vinnikov to task on several important points, which time does not allow us to go into at the present time. Suffice it to say that Chatto was very critical of Vinnikov’s assertion that Engels made Morgan’s Ancient Society the basis for his Origin of the Family. On the contrary, he maintained, Engels wrote his work “in connection with” and not ” on the basis of” Morgan’s discoveries. While Morgan’s book appeared in 1877, Marx and Engels had already beforehand been preoccupied with research on pre-class society. Morgan’s book confirmed the materialistic understanding propounded by Marx 40 years previously, i.e., 30 whole years before Morgan’s book.
In this context, Chatto quoted from a letter of Engels to Kautsky dated 26 April 1884, in connection with his reviewing of Morgan’s book: ” It would be absurd to only objectively expound Morgan and not interpret him critically, using the newly archived results and in accordance with our views and conclusions that we have already arrived at”.
Again, Chatto referred to Chapter IX of Engels’ book – Barbarism and Civilisation – where he clearly says that, for the understanding of the economic conditions which broke down clan society, Marx’s Capital was indispensable. ” The economic considerations which were sufficient for the task which Morgan had put to himself, were completely insufficient for mine, everything was revised by me anew”.
According to Chatto, while Engels’ book was one of the basic works of modern socialism, Morgan’s book could be described only as the highest achievement of bourgeois ethnography. What is more, only through acknowledgement of its importance by the founders of scientific socialism was Morgan’s work rescued from the “conspiracy of silence”. He dismissed Vinnikov’s observation about ” the greatness of Morgan who managed to rise so high above his surroundings and leave his epoch far behind”.
Chatto also criticised Vinnikov’s academic and politically insipid annotations, reflecting the latter’s inability to free himself from the influence of bourgeois scholars. Criticising Vinnikov’s political indifference, Chatto lamented that terms like ‘socialism’, ‘socialist’, ‘class struggle’, ‘workers’ movement’ were simply absent from the book. He insisted that ” we are right in demanding a clear understanding of the fact that science cannot be separated from the class struggle”.
Chatto’s ethnographic studies were mainly concerned with the origin and development of the family, systems of relationship, group marriage and exogamy.
In the spring of 1935 he helped the Scientific Publication Institute of the USSR in the preparation of the Great Soviet Atlas of the World.
In addition to his work at the IAE, he taught Urdu at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Leningrad and subsequently also at the Leningrad institute of Linguistic Studies.
In the commemoration volume of Soviet Scientists published 60 years after his death, the biography of Chatto concludes with this tribute:
” The name and scientific activity of V A Chatopadaya deserve the respect and acknowledgement of his colleagues. Although he only worked for a short period [four years] in the field of Soviet ethnography, he had a certain influence on the formation of the new subject which, in particular, was connected with the study of the system of relationship and the development of Soviet ethnographic Indology”.
From August 1931 Chatto lived in the USSR. The first 18 months of his stay were full of odd jobs and worries. But the period from 1 March 1933 till his death, during which time he worked at the IAE, was the most creative and fulfilling period of his life.
During this period he formed a strong friendship with Lidiya Eduardovna Karunovskaya, head of the Indonesia section at the Institute and 10 years his junior. Before 1933 was out, they were married.
Agnes Smedley visited the Soviet Union when Chatto’s friendship with Karunovskaya was at its peak. She stayed in the USSR from June 1933 to April 1934. She met Chatto in Leningrad. The reunion was friendly and platonic. Chatto told her about his friendship with Karunovskaya and they parted on friendly terms, at last closing the chapter of a relationship full of intense passion, endless depression, and endless unhappiness.
According to his biographer, on 17 July 1937 Chatto was arrested and then sentenced to death by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR on 2 September 1937, with the sentence carried out the same day by a firing squad. After the 20th Congress of the CPSU he was rehabilitated.
Lack of evidence concerning the arrest, trial, conviction and supposed execution of Chatto does not, however, prevent his biographer from making the most wild and implausible assertions – assertions which would stretch the credulity of a child of tender years.
Overcome by a visceral hatred of Joseph Stalin, Mr Barooah asserts:
“Chatto had openly praised Lenin . Although publicly devoted to Marx and Lenin for political reasons, Stalin was working clandestinely to establish his personal dictatorship which brooked no one who showed any signs of an independent mind”.
And further: “ … he [Chatto] was a protégé of Sergey Mironovich Kirov (1888-1934), the second most important man in Russia after Stalin. It was he who had brought Chatto to Leningrad, and set him on the academic path … Kirov was … an energetic and popular leader from Leningrad “, whose ” popularity was rapidly growing while Stalin’s was steadily falling in the wake of the Russian collectivisation debacle and famine. There was a growing sense that Russia needed a change, and there were demands for softening the dictatorship and making the system more humane. Kirov sympathised with these demands … As Stalin’s popularity declined, the search for an alternative leader was widely canvassed, and Kirov seemed to be the one clear choice of the people. Then, on 1 December 1934, Kirov was assassinated in Leningrad … Although Stalin showed great grief in public…, no one doubted that Stalin was behind the assassination. In fact, many consider the murder of Kirov as the beginning of Stalin’s abominable purges” (pp. 323-324).
In the short space of fewer than two pages, Mr Barooah has managed to make so many groundless assertions, without bothering to offer any substantiating evidence, that it would take a large volume to disprove his negatives. Anyone who was looking for a refutation of these scandalous claims is advised to look at my book Trotskyism or Leninism? And Grover Furr’s The murder of Sergey Kirov.
We shall merely remark that if open praise of Lenin had been such a crime as Mr Barooah makes it out to be, then most of the Soviet population, including Stalin, would have needed to have been eliminated, for Lenin was not only the object of praise but of devoted adulation.
Like most bourgeois intellectuals, Mr Barooah is incapable of understanding the role and stature of Stalin in the Soviet system. Instead of seeing his authority as the product of Stalin having become the most representative spokesman of the Soviet proletariat, he can only explain it in terms of personal dictatorship, used as he is to the skulduggery of bourgeois politics.
By the time of Kirov’s foul assassination by the opposition, collectivisation had been successfully completed and the First Five-Year Plan for socialist construction accomplished in record time of four years, laying the basis for the elimination of famine and unemployment, and setting the Soviet Union on the path of becoming an exceptionally strong power economically and militarily, as well as in the fields of science, technology and culture.
All this had happened under Stalin’s leadership and in the face of opposition from the combined forces of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin. Far from collectivisation being a debacle, it was an unprecedented world-historic success, which eliminated problems of food shortages, while bringing culture to the countryside, through the mechanisation of agriculture and application of scientific methods in this crucial sector of the economy which had hitherto been characterised by extreme backwardness and antiquated mode of cultivation. It brought the Soviet peasantry closer to the Soviet proletariat, thus strengthening the dictatorship, not of Stalin but of the proletariat in the countryside.
Consequent upon these achievements, Stalin was at the height of his popularity. The only time he was ever to be more popular was following the Soviet victory over fascism in the Second World War. The assertion that Stalin’s popularity was steadily falling just when it was registering a phenomenal rise is simply laughable and an insult to the intelligence of any informed reader.
Undoubtedly, Kirov was a very popular and much-loved Soviet leader, but in no way was he a rival of Stalin. He loved, admired and respected Stalin, and the latter returned the compliment. He had successfully routed the opposition in Leningrad. Precisely for this reason the opposition hated him. Unable to fight him, and the Party, politically, the opposition resorted to terrorist methods to eliminate this wonderful son of the Soviet proletariat. Kirov’s murder was a blow to the Soviet proletariat, and to Stalin personally. Stalin did not just show “great grief in public”. He was genuinely devastated by this heinous assassination.
If the murder of Kirov set in process the Moscow Trials (what Mr Barooah characterises as “the beginning of Stalin’s abominable purges”), this is to be explained solely by the evidence thrown up by the Kirov murder investigation and subsequent judicial proceedings.
Furthermore, two months after Chatto’s arrest, his Soviet wife, Karunovskaya, was dismissed from the Institute. She complained about it to A A Dholanov, a very close comrade of Stalin, and was reinstated in March 1939.
On 22 March 1958, Karunovskaya was handed a death certificate stating that Chatto died on 6 April 1943 – and not earlier. Neither the cause nor the place of death were mentioned. So up to today we do not know why Chatto was arrested, nor if he was actually executed, and if so on what charges. We do not even know for certain the date of his demise. Lack of these crucial details provides his biographer with an opportunity to exercise his not too infertile imagination for the purpose of indulging in an orgy of wild fantasy. That may be good for Mr Barooah but not for any intelligent reader who wishes to be enlightened on the subject.
For our part we are content to bring to the attention of our readers the important role that Chatto played in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism and his role in support of the cause of India’s liberation during a significant period of his life.