'never been more relevant'

Written by Irfan Chowdhury for Amazon (republished with permission) on Thursday, November 19th, 2020

In ‘Comrade Sak’, Marc Wadsworth traces the fascinating life and political career of Shapurji Saklatvala from his time as a student, with an interest in social justice in colonial India, to his election as a Communist Party MP (with the official endorsement of the Labour Party) for North Battersea, in south London, in 1922, through to his break from the Labour Party and his ultimate decision to campaign against it.

Wadsworth draws on his own interviews with Battersea residents who voted for Saklatvala, newspaper articles from the time, and first-hand accounts written by Saklatvala’s family members, friends, and political allies and opponents alike, to paint a picture of a passionate, eloquent and deeply principled politician who won over his constituents through his compelling oratory and his unapologetic class politics.

Wadsworth quotes A.P. Godfrey, a conservative Municipal Reform Party Battersea councillor, who strongly opposed Saklatvala, as attesting to his powers of communication. Godfrey said: “[Saklatvala would] turn up at a street corner meeting on the coldest of nights and, by sheer personality and his wonderful eloquence, would rivet the attention of the audience so completely that they soon forgot their discomfort.”

Wadsworth also quotes Battersea Young Communist League member Minnie Bowles, who described an incident in which Saklatvala was called to deal with a domestic fight in which a man was beating his wife. Bowles recalled: “Sak stood inside the door and said, quietly, ‘Now why do you beat your wife? She is not your enemy. You have real enemies. Think of the landlord who charges you rent for this slum; or your boss who pays your wages, hardly enough to keep you alive.’ And he [Saklatvala] went on in this quiet way until the man was weeping, and the wife was comforting him.”

The fact that the predominately white working-class residents of Battersea overwhelmingly supported Saklatvala - an avowed Communist of Indian descent - proves that it is not a law of nature that this stratum of society will always necessarily support right-wing, reactionary politics; Saklatvala championed their interests, and so they championed him. The Battersea residents were also mostly of Irish descent, and Saklatvala’s vocal opposition to British colonialism in Ireland was another significant reason for his popularity among constituents. Consequently, Saklatvala was subject to a huge amount of character assassination in the Conservative press.

Wadsworth draws parallels between Saklatvala’s treatment and the treatment of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. However, in my view, a crucial difference is that when Saklatvala was an MP, there were genuinely left-wing mainstream newspapers such as the Communist party’s Daily Worker, which did not participate in the right-wing attacks on him, indeed, they supported him. That was not the case with Corbyn, who often came under the heaviest attacks from The Guardian, despite it being widely touted as the leading left-wing newspaper in Britain.

Wadsworth notes that Saklatvala was “an industrious MP” who made “almost 500 interventions during his parliamentary career”, including “significant interventions on British trade union issues, the Emergency Powers Act, which was in force during and after the General Strike of 1926, during which Saklatvala was jailed for two months for a speech he gave in support of striking miners, unemployment, housing conditions and Ireland”, although his primary focus was always on India. This commitment to “raising issues [related to India], which would otherwise have gone unchallenged and unreported”, set him apart from other MPs. It was a political focus that made him “vulnerable to the accusation… that his constituents had got an MP for India rather than an MP for North Battersea”.

Wadsworth sets out in detail the increasingly acrimonious exchanges that took place between Saklatvala and Gandhi regarding the situation in India. Saklatvala was a harsh critic of Gandhi’s advocacy of khaddar (“the spinning of cotton by self-reliant peasants”), and instead argued that India had to be industrialised, so that an urban proletariat was empowered to overthrow British colonial rule and the capitalist system as a whole. He further argued that Gandhi should have supported strikes against colonial rule, and that khaddar was “a supplementary economic weapon not a political weapon”.

Wadsworth observes that Saklatvala’s analysis “betrayed a simplistic belief that European Marxist theory, based on the need to mobilise industrial workers against capitalism, was applicable to an overwhelmingly peasant country like India”. This inflexible communist dogma at the expense of a concrete analysis of material conditions in a country like India was by no means unique to Saklatvala. I would argue that this was a major problem for the Bolsheviks themselves, who believed that pre-1917 Russia - a largely peasant society, just like colonial India, would only be ready for socialism after it had been industrialised, which led the British rulers to institute an extremely repressive state capitalist system and to subordinate the peasantry into what Lenin described as a “labour army”.

The lesson of this is that leftists should be careful not to treat their interpretation of Marxist theory as a substitute for religion, but rather maintain a rational understanding of the differing dynamics in each situation and work to achieve societal change based upon that understanding, while respecting and recognising the potential of those who may not be categorised as belonging to a narrow, theoretical conception of the “revolutionary class” but who are no less capable of being agents of progressive change.

Another of Saklatvala’s criticisms of Gandhi stemmed from the MP’s unwavering anti-imperialist worldview, which was specifically a criticism of Gandhi’s decision to encourage Indians living in England to offer their services to the British Army during World War One. According to Saklatvala, Gandhi “exhorted every Indian to join the British Army, and he openly declared that India’s liberty was to be won on the battlefields of Belgium murdering the Germans”. However, as Wadsworth points out, Saklatvala’s assertion was at least partly incorrect. Gandhi had in fact encouraged Indians to assist in providing medical aid to wounded British soldiers, not to engage in combat. Nonetheless, this episode is illustrative of Saklatvala’s absolute opposition to the British Empire, and this stance was partly the cause of the ever-widening schism that developed between him and the Labour Party.

In 1928, textile workers in Bombay refused to accept a cut in their wages and staged a massive strike. Although the strike ended in victory, 31 people who had participated in it were arrested the following year and subsequently handed extremely harsh sentences. A Labour government was in power during all of this, and Saklatvala accused the party’s MPs of continuing “the time-honoured Tory policy of British imperialism, accompanied by all its bloodshed and murder, through political and economic strangulation, but all done in the garb and cloak of Socialist benevolence”.

Aside from Jeremy Corbyn’s brief tenure as Labour leader, Saklatvala’s description of the Labour Party has remained apt throughout its history. Current Labour leader Keir Starmer recently whipped Labour MPs to abstain on a bill that essentially sought to legalise torture and other war crimes by British troops operating overseas, and only a handful of MPs broke the whip to vote against it. Although Saklatvala was re-elected in the 1924 general election without the official endorsement of the Labour Party (but with the support of all leading Labour figures locally), he subsequently lost his parliamentary seat in the 1929 general election, which was won by Labour, which, for the first time, stood a candidate against him.

Saklatavala unsuccessfully made a final attempt to regain his seat in 1931. But, as Wadsworth notes, the “extremely anti-Labour election material the Communist Party published did not help his chances”. It was the view of the Communist Party that “a vote for the Labour candidates means a vote for a vicious capitalist offensive”. Saklatvala also attacked the Labour government’s “naked Militarist imperialism” in India, Burma, China and Africa, during his election campaign. Wadsworth observes that this criticism was accurate and important, but the necessity of ending colonialism was nonetheless “unlikely to have been high on the priorities of the majority of working-class voters fed a diet of pro-imperialist propaganda in the popular press”.

Throughout its time in power, the Labour government upheld a ban on Saklatvala travelling to India, which had initially been instituted by the previous Conservative government in 1926, fearing that he would stir up agitation against colonial rule. This ban was then continued by the subsequent Conservative government that came into power in 1931. Thus, Saklatvala was cruelly prevented from visiting his friends and family in India, and tragically the ban lasted until his death in 1936.

In conclusion, ’Comrade Sak’ is an engaging, moving and deeply informative read, which sheds light on a significant chapter of contemporary British political history that has been largely buried by the British political, intellectual and media class and thus erased from mainstream public consciousness. The political battles that Saklatvala fought throughout his career - against imperialism, racism, capitalism and, ultimately, against the Labour Party itself - are still being fought on the left today, with varying degrees of success.

Ultimately, Saklatvala’s story is of a man who stayed true to his principles and refused to be bought, even when he found himself at odds with the ideological consensus among his self-proclaimed political allies; a rare stance in British politics, but one that should be adopted by all those who genuinely believe in the importance of championing the oppressed, regardless of the political expediency (or lack thereof) in doing so.

We owe Marc Wadsworth a debt of gratitude for bringing this story to public attention in Britain and around the world. Its lessons have arguably never been more relevant.