‘Several generations of Marxists have received a great part of their political education from R. Palme Dutt. He is, as every reader of Notes of the Month knows, one of the most distinguished living practitioners of contemporary history’ E. Hobsbawm, Review of R. Palme Dutt, Problems of Contemporary History, 1963
This tribute by the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm describes a figure little known today even among the left. For over 50 years Rajani Palme Dutt was a leading theoretician in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), as well as a prominent voice on colonial affairs within the Communist International. Dutt was a prolific writer, and according to his biographer John Callaghan was regarded in his day ‘as the most brilliant Marxist analyst in the English-speaking world’ (Callaghan, 1993, p. 7). His impressive corpus entailed a systematic critique of capitalism, social democracy, and fascism, all of which he analysed through an anti-imperialist framework.
Dutt was born in 1896 in Cambridge, UK, to a Swedish writer and a Bengali doctor, through whom he was introduced at an early age to socialist and Indian nationalist politics. His great uncle, Romesh Chandra Dutt, had authored a pioneering study of wealth drain in India under British rule, and Rajani Palme Dutt would later develop his own analysis of the economic mechanisms of ‘unequal exchange’ between Britain and its colonial dependencies, four decades before the concept was popularised by the Greek-French Marxist Arghiri Emmanuel (Dutt, 1936, p. 200).
At university in Oxford, Dutt was drawn to Marxist ideas of class struggle, and particularly to Lenin’s characterisation of the First World War as an inter-imperialist conflict. Anti-war activism with his brother Clemens made Dutt a target of the British state, and he served three terms in prison before his twenty-first birthday, while also being banned from the countries of the British Empire (Callaghan, 1993, p. 19).
Dutt originally worked for a research institute within the reformist Labour Party, but he believed a revolutionary alternative to parliamentary socialism was needed. Supported by his future wife, the Estonian Bolshevik Salme Murrik, Dutt was the intellectual weight behind the formation of the British Communist Party in 1920, and he became the Party’s key link with the Comintern, which later earned him the moniker of ‘Stalin’s mouthpiece’ in Britain.
While residing in what he termed ‘the parasite metropolis of the imperial system’, Dutt viewed British society through an anti-colonial lens – what he himself called his ‘alien eye’ (Callaghan, 1993, p. 73). This was an example of what sociologist Satnam Virdee has referred to as the ‘second sight’ of ‘racialised outsiders’ within the communist movement, who saw through ‘the fog of blood, soil and belonging’ (Virdee, 2017, p. 2406).
Dutt was aware that racial ideology was deeply rooted in Britain, and he warned that class consciousness could be replaced by ‘imperial solidarity’. Upon witnessing the Labour Party in office resume Britain’s colonial policy in India, Egypt, Palestine, Ireland, and Iraq, Dutt published a critique of the politics of ‘Empire ‘socialism’’ (Callaghan, 1993, p. 104). He argued that Labour’s reformist outlook and its embrace of imperialism were entwined, since economic concessions to white workers at home within the capitalist framework were enabled by colonial super-profits abroad. He declared that the Empire was ‘the unspoken premise of all British Labour and trade union politics’, and the ‘hidden spring of capital-Labour harmony’ in the imperial metropolis.
Dutt was similarly critical of the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee, which coupled the construction of the welfare state with intensified economic exploitation of the colonial dependencies. Dutt’s analysis of the British Labour movement’s structural contamination by imperialism notably contrasted with the Eurocentrism of the post-war New Left’s critique of the ‘sickness of Labourism’.
Through his Labour Monthly Dutt educated British workers about the realities of the Empire, but he also influenced anti-colonial movements abroad. In 1925 the CPGB was involved in the creation of a Workers’ and Peasants’ Party in India, and the following year Dutt became a leading voice on the subcontinent with his publication of Modern India. Dutt encouraged a break with the line developed by the Indian communist Manabendra Nath Roy, who famously challenged Lenin by arguing that India’s industrialisation would generate a revolutionary role for the indigenous working classes, rather than the national bourgeoisie represented by Gandhi and the Indian National Congress.
There had been an upsurge in the Indian nationalist struggle after the First World War, and Dutt was attuned to the development of a left-wing within the Congress around Jawaharlal Nehru, who advocated for complete independence rather than dominion status. In 1936 Dutt co-authored the influential ‘Dutt-Bradley Thesis’, which oriented the new policy of the Indian Communist Party by calling for a broad Anti-Imperialist People’s Front embracing the ‘overwhelming majority of the population’, with the central demand for a Constituent Assembly. Dutt believed a national-popular revolution in India against feudalism and imperialism would prepare the grounds for later socialist development. Like Nehru, Dutt also strongly opposed communalism, which he attributed to British divide-and-rule policy (Callaghan, 1993, pp. 158–9; 203).
Dutt’s attentions were simultaneously turned to the rise of political reaction within the Western world, which he saw as a symptom of ‘the extreme stage of imperialism in break-up’ (Dutt, 1978, p. 140). His 1934 study of authoritarian politics in Europe and North America, Fascism and Social Revolution, was impressively sweeping in scope. Dutt viewed the rise of far-right extremism through his ‘alien eye’, and he challenged a Eurocentric framing of fascism as the antithesis of the ‘democratic’ traditions of the capitalist West. Dutt pointed out that the purported ‘freedoms’ experienced within Britain had ‘been built on the foundation of colonial slavery; as was strikingly demonstrated when the Labour Government, the champion of ‘democracy’, brought in a reign of terror to maintain despotism in India and jailed sixty thousand for the crime of asking for democratic rights’ (ibid., p. 155).
Anticipating Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore’s writings on ‘colonial fascism’, Dutt had already argued in 1923 that ’the Empire is the British form of Fascism’. While the connections between fascism and colonialism are increasingly being recognised by scholars, Dutt’s early insights remain unacknowledged.
In the build up to the Second World War, the kinship between anti-colonialism and communism became increasingly strained when the Soviet Union began to prioritise pragmatic alliances with the ‘democratic’ imperialist powers, leading to Padmore’s break with the Comintern. In India, the communists encouraged support for the anti-fascist war effort, which was viewed by many in the nationalist movement as a fight on behalf of British imperialism.
Dutt laid out a defence of the Soviet Union’s leadership of the global working-class movement in his World Politics, 1918–1936, which received a direct rebuke in C. L. R. James’s World Revolution, 1917–1936. While justifying the twists and turns of Comintern policy, Dutt nevertheless opposed the patriotic politics of the Popular Front period, insisting that support for the Allied war effort should be ‘combined with continued struggle against Churchill and British imperialism’ (Callaghan, 1993, p. 198).
Dutt remained committed to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism until his death in 1974, and he continued to uphold the Soviet Union as the primary bulwark against ascendant US imperialism during the Cold War. The political life of Dutt embodied the intimate yet complex relationship between communism and anti-colonialism during the twentieth century.
Dutt, R. P. (1923), ‘The British Empire’, Labour Monthly, 5(4).
Dutt, R. P. (1978 ), Fascism and Social Revolution, Chicago: Proletarian Publishers.
Callaghan, J. (1991), ‘The Heart of Darkness: Rajani Palme Dutt and the British Empire – A Profile’, Contemporary Record, 5(2): 257–75.
Dutt, R. P. (1936), World Politics, 1918–1936, London: Victor Gollancz.
Dutt, R. P. (1940), India Today, London: Victor Gollancz.
Callaghan, J. (1993), Rajani Palme Dutt: A Study in British Stalinism, London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Hancox, A. (2021), ‘Fascisation as an Expression of Imperialist Decay: Rajani Palme Dutt’s Fascism and Social Revolution’, Liberated Texts.
Virdee, S. (2017), ‘The Second Sight of Racialised Outsiders in the Imperialist Core’, Third World Quarterly, 38(11): 2396–2410.
How did Dutt’s ‘alien eye’ influence his understanding of British society?
What does Dutt’s critique of ‘Empire socialism’ tell us about the development of Western social democracy?
Should fascism be viewed as a form of imperialism?
What can the political career of Dutt tell us about the relationship between communism and anti-colonialism during the twentieth century?
Is the concept of imperialist “unequal exchange” relevant for interpreting the world economy today?
Submitted by Alfie Hancox