Sacha Ismail reviews Marc Wadsworth’s biography of Shapurji Saklatvala, Comrade Sak: A Political Biography (Peepal Tree Press, 2020)
There are four biographies of 1920s revolutionary socialist MP Shapurji Saklatvala. Marc Wadsworth’s is the most recent, originally published in 1998 and republished in an updated version in September this year. It’s very good – mostly (when I started writing the recent series of articles on Saklatvala in Solidarity, I tried but failed to get hold of the original edition of Wadsworth’s book; the new version didn’t arrive until five out of six articles were finished).
Wadsworth is a left-wing activist, journalist and writer of long standing; he was central in the push to establish Labour Party “black sections” in the 1980s. Not having come across his work before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He is recently best-known for being expelled from the Labour Party in 2016 in connection with antisemitism. Although the specific charges were insubstantial and the process a travesty – Workers’ Liberty has called for his reinstatement – Wadsworth is part of the wing of the left which dismisses left antisemitism as a non-issue. He recently spoke on a platform about “free speech” with antisemitism apologists Chris Williamson, Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein, and pro-Assad and pro-Xi conspiracy theorist Max Blumenthal.
At various points in the new edition of Comrade Sak, Wadsworth connects Saklatvala’s story and stances to Labour and left politics today. In the 2020 preface – generally useful and containing many suggestions for wider reading – he presents a fairly typical “left-wing” dismissal of the idea antisemitism is a problem on the left, although it does have the merit of wrongly but openly and honestly arguing for a “single [binational] secular state” as a viable way out of the oppression of the Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He compares this policy to left-wing opposition to the partition of India. But, in addition to the distinctly different histories of pre-partition India and historic Palestine, would any left-winger argue that India and Pakistan should now be merged regardless of the wishes of their peoples? Or that a merged state is a near-future answer to India-Pakistan conflict?
The other up-to-the-moment political arguments Wadsworth makes are much better: there is strongly implied criticism of Labour’s softness on Brexit and emphatic criticism on issues such as “immigration policy, policing policy, mass incarceration”.
As a work of history and biography, Comrade Sak is comprehensive but accessible, rich in both facts and analysis, and extremely well-constructed and written. Focusing on the second half of Saklatvala's life - after he moved from India to the UK - it depicts him vividly and ably places him in the context of powerful workers’ movements (local, national, international), anti-colonial struggles, and the history of black and Asian radicalism in Britain. As well as the earlier biographies and a wide variety of other literature, Wadsworth draws on a range of sources from Saklatvala’s time, first-hand accounts from political allies and opponents, friends and family members, and interviews he conducted in the 90s with Battersea residents who voted for him (and a couple who, motivated by racism, didn't).
In addition to its preface and seven chapters over 136 pages, the book includes illuminating endnotes, appendices containing 64 pages of Saklatvala’s writings and speeches, tributes received from a remarkable range of figures on his death, and some fantastic photos and images.
This is definitely the one to get if you want a relatively detailed introduction to “Sak” (my articles, obviously quite a bit shorter and less in-depth, will be published as a pamphlet in the new year). Our political disagreements notwithstanding, Wadsworth is clearly a very talented and thoughtful researcher and writer.
Two problems in his historical-political analysis raise some important issues.
1. In 1927, on his return from a political tour of India, Saklatvala responded to pressure from family members there by holding a large public ceremony in Westminster to initiate his children into the Parsi/Zoroastrian religion. Attendees at this event included a number of high-profile Tory imperialists. The Communist Party of Great Britain published a statement criticising Saklatvala, arguing that while it was entirely possible for workers to join the Communist movement without abandoning their religious ideas, a responsible and high-profile party leader like Saklatvala should know better than to engage in a public religious demonstration. Saklatvala publicly accepted the criticism but argued it was necessary for "domestic" reasons outside his control.
There are nuances to all this, but it seems to me the CP was essentially right. Wadsworth suggests the party was “Eurocentric” and that Saklatvala should have defended Zoroastrianism, ignoring the ambiguity of his actual relationship to religion. Although Saklatvala made references to “god” in his speeches (“The workers in Great Britain should realise that God has not created man to be ruled dictatorially and autocratically by another man”) and employed the rhetorical device that a consistent application of religious principles was incompatible with imperialism and capitalism, it's far from clear that he was actually religious.
He told CP leader Rajani Palme Dutt he had once believed religion was the solution to society’s ills but moved on when he came to see that it promoted quiescence in the face of injustice; and when he was arrested and imprisoned during the 1926 General Strike, he told his jailers his religion was “None”.
It should be said that some other criticisms Wadsworth makes of the CP, including on questions of anti-racism, are reasonable.
A bigger problem is Wadsworth's argument that the CP’s supposed error was the same as that of left-wingers who backed Salman Rushdie against right-wing Muslim bigots – implying the call to suppress The Satanic Verses and kill Rushdie was a matter of “ethnic or cultural… differences” which should be respected (it is ironic that he spoke without criticism alongside Max Blumenthal, arch-apologist for China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslims and its Islamophobic “war on terror”).
This analysis is itself Islamophobic, equating Muslim people or Islamic religious beliefs with the Islamic political-religious right. And equating Saklatvala, a very strong advocate of secularism, universalism and freedom of speech and debate, with such reactionaries! Wadsworth is black and an anti-racist, but there does seem to be an element here of lumping very different people into one category of “brown people and their quirky religions”…
2. During his 1927 tour of India, Saklatvala debated Indian nationalist leader Mohandas Gandhi at length, in writing and on one occasion in person. Wadsworth argues that Gandhi was right on key points of the disagreement.
He acknowledges the justice of Saklatvala’s criticisms of the cult of personality surrounding the “Mahatma” (“Great Soul” or “Saintly One”). He notes that Gandhian politics of class collaboration helped give birth to a deeply unequal independent India, serving the interests of the big capitalists and landlords, which in turn produced the more recent rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism.
But Gandhi’s bourgeois political goals were intertwined with the political strategy Saklatvala was criticising – mobilisation around national-cultural symbols such as spinning cotton and access to salt, involving vast numbers but controlled from the top down, carefully avoiding conflict with or serious pressure on Indian capitalists, and insisting on "non-violence" in the face of British state violence and repression. He justifies this “subtle” strategy by presenting Saklatvala’s alternative as purely “insurrectionary”, focused on “a volcanic eruption of the working class which would destroy British rule”.
It is true that Saklatvala wanted to destroy the colonial Indian state and replace it with a socialist state, whereas Gandhi wanted to take control of and reform it (as eventually happened). But Wadsworth ignores or even misrepresents what Saklatvala advocated in his letters to Gandhi: not armed insurrection, but patient and energetic work of “organising labour and peasantry… leading the workers in factories and farms to obtain their rights”, both to mitigate the country’s “murderous” social conditions and to build up a force which could eventually overthrow feudal-type remnants and capitalism along with British rule (he includes the Saklatvala-Gandhi correspondence as an appendix; you can read extracts from it online here, p359.)
Wadsworth suggests that Saklatvala’s belief in the need to “mobilise industrial workers against capitalism” was based on a “simplistic belief that European Marxist theory… was applicable to an overwhelmingly peasant country like India”. He misunderstands or misrepresents what happened in the Russian revolution, where the industrial working class allied with and led the peasant majority to overthrow both Czarism and capitalism, instead equating it with the Stalinist revolutions in China, Cuba and Vietnam.
Like Russia in 1917, India in 1927 had a powerful, growing and increasingly militant industrial working class (the parallels between Russia and India were an important factor in Saklatvala's rallying to Communism). Wadsworth’s apparent dismissal of its potential at that time was not shared by the British authorities, who, alarmed by a rising tide of worker-militancy, resorted to increasingly sharp repression specifically against India's workers' movement and the Communists within it.
Despite the hindering influence of Gandhianism's social policy and its advocacy of "non-violence", India's working people found themselves compelled to engage in both militant class struggle and the use of force to assert their rights, resist the British empire and win even bourgeois independence.
Far from dismissing India’s peasant majority, Saklatvala objected to Gandhi “ruining the mentality and psychology of these villagers for another generation” by encouraging a culture of “belief that there are superior persons on the earth and Mahatmas in this life when in this country the white man’s prestige is already a dangerous obstacle in our way”. He wanted workers and socialists to help liberate the peasants by promoting political education and discussion and democratic organisation among them.