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The Militant, 7 March 1942

William Ellis

American Tells of
Indian Workers’ Organizations

Met with Union Groups and Heard Workers’ Views
on War and National Independence

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 10, 7 March 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(The following is the concluding section of an article by an American who returned from India shortly before the outbreak of the Pacific war.)

India is very largely a peasant country, although it has a tremendous potential for industrial development. This potential has not been realized because of British domination. The British rulers do not wish the growth of industries competitive to Britain’s home industries, preferring to drain the raw materials and resources of India and exploit it as a market.

Nevertheless, since the last war, there has been a relatively considerable industrial development, and with it the growth of the industrial working class. Although the industrial workers represent as yet only a small fraction of the population, they are highly concentrated in certain key cities and industries. They have built up a tradition of militant struggle, have advanced politically far above the level of the rest of the native population, and have a political and economic weight far out of proportion to their numbers.

One of the things that surprised me as we went up the Hooghly River at the port of Calcutta, where I got my first glimpse of India, were the foundries and factory plants along the river banks. Most of them looked like new, modern buildings, and from the signs on them I could tell they were very largely British-owned. The present war has stimulated an industrial expansion in India.

This expansion was evident in all the big cities and ports I visited. In one city, where there is a growing steel industry, I had the opportunity to meet a group of iron and steel workers. They were in the process of forming a union, and represented several plants in the area.

Trade Union Problems

Unionism was a very new experience to them, and they were extremely interested in every phase of union activity and procedure. Naturally, they were forced to function under conditions of virtual illegality, as the vaunted British democracy has never been imported into India along with British imperialism.

Every time I had a chance to talk with Indian workers, I found them extremely anxious to learn about the organizational methods and experiences of the American workers. Yes, even into far-off India among the most exploited workers in the world, has come the knowledge of the great labor struggles and organizational strides of American labor in the past decade.

Observing that I was an American and sympathetic to the cause of the workers, the steel workers I met asked me many questions about how the American workers go about winning better conditions. They told me of some of their problems, and solicited my advice.

“Can We Trust the Manager?”

One of them told me that in his particular plant, the union had gained sufficient strength to compel the management to deal with it. However, he explained, the manager was attending their meetings and negotiating for the company directly within their organization. The steel worker and his comrades expressed doubt as to the wisdom of having the company manager in their meetings, wanted to know whether American workers permit the management into their meetings, and asked me: “Can we trust the manager?”

I told them that that was not permitted in American unions, that the managers act for the companies and are not to be trusted. I further told them that from my observations of the American labor movement, only militant struggle would be able to win them better conditions. They expressed agreement.

One of their immediate problems was the intention of the companies to dock them two days’ pay if they failed to work during the observance of a coming religious holiday. Their wages are so incredibly low, that the loss of two days’ pay would have been a serious blow, meaning actual hunger for them.

One of their major demands was for the ten-hour day. They told me that they had to work a regular twelve-hour day, six days a week, at heavy manual labor. One said: “We don’t want much. Just a couple of hours less work a day. All life means to us now is work to exhaustion, go to sleep, get up, go to work, always tired, never rested.”

They asked me about strikes. They knew that any strike they would conduct would be against the government as well as the bosses, and troops would be sent against them as a matter of course. To them, the British authorities and the bosses are one and the same. They also told me of some of the company practices, very reminiscent of those in the U.S. The companies plant spies in the union, set up rival company unions, etc.

By good fortune, I was able to attend a meeting of dock workers in one city. Although they are a recognized and legal union, they are nevertheless constantly subjected to police intimidation, arrested on the slightest pretext, and their meetings and activities are under continual surveillance.

It came as a surprise to me to observe how well-educated politically these dock workers are. Their discussion at the meeting was along Marxist lines, and was devoted to a consideration of the basic causes of the war. With virtual unanimity, they stated that they considered the most immediate enemy of the Indian workers to be the British rulers and the native capitalists.

One of them said: “We have nothing against the British workers. If they would revolt, it would be much easier for us.”

What was particularly significant about this attitude, was that most of the workers at this meeting were under Stalinist influence and leadership. The Stalinists, as I found out, have been working to get these workers to forego their own struggles and to turn them toward support of Great Britain in the war.

Role of Stalinism

But so deep is the workers’ hatred for the British rulers, and so strong is their desire to fight for national independence, that the Stalinists – to prevent complete isolation from the masses – were proceeding along these lines slowly and in the most indirect fashion.

They were, for example, trying to exploit the progressive sentiments of the workers for aid to the Soviet Union. The dock workers were assisting in a campaign jo- raise funds for the Soviet Union, to which they are giving whole-hearted support. Stalinist propaganda was trying to convince them that they should soften their struggle for national independence in the interests of helping the USSR, and its ally. Britain. But at the time I was there they had not yet dared to come cut openly among these workers and tell them to support the war.

During the course of my, discussion with the dock workers, my opinion was asked about the Soviet Union. I told them that I was for its unconditional defense, but, I added, it was necessary to differentiate between the workers state and the capitalist states, and that I thought the best way they could help the USSR was by continuing their own struggle for national freedom. They nodded approvingly.

From my observations, Stalinism is one of the most dangerous forces operating against Indian independence, particularly because in the past the Stalinists have led the masses in many bitter struggles and their influence has penetrated deeply among many advanced sections of the Indian working class.

Indian Trotskyists

I am happiest to be able to report that there is a growing Trotskyist movement in India. The Trotskyists I talked with were extremely optimistic about the future of the Fourth International in their country They already have groups in a number of cities and are planning the consolidation of these groups into an All-India party as soon as possible.

I also learned that, contrary to reports circulated in the United States some time ago, they are and have from the beginning been in full agreement with the position of the Socialist Workers Party for defense of the Soviet Union.

The Fourth Internationalists in India are composed mainly of workers and have been winning over more and more union militants. Of course, they are functioning under very difficult, illegal conditions. Some of the Indian comrades are in prison.

They are publishing a paper, called The Spark – named after Lenin’s paper, Iskra. In the formation of their party, and as a guide for its organizational methods, they are trying to apply the teachings of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?

Among the Indian masses, there is no section that appears to be able to give correct and militant leadership other than the industrial proletariat. They impress one with their class outlook, militancy and political intelligence. It is the workers, I am certain, who will give the decisive leadership to the struggle for Indian emancipation. Conditions in India are so explosive today that with a correct proletarian revolutionary leadership, nothing will prevent the Indian people from successfully achieving their freedom from British rule and oppression.

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