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Books Comrade Sak

Engaging study of the Indian anti-imperialist and communist, MP Shapurji Saklatvala

THIS is a very readable account of the life of Shapurji Saklatvala — Sak — who was first a Labour and then a Communist MP for Battersea North in south-west London during the 1920s.

In Comrade Sak, author Marc Wadsworth traces his rise to national prominence during the first world war through the Independent Labour Party and his later adherence to the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain.

Wadsworth doesn't dwell on Saklatvala’s lifelong committent to the Communist Party although, as he rightly states, he was offered and resisted all kinds of inducements to leave it, including the possibility of a high position in the Labour party. Yet he resisted all these enticements.

Whether Saklatvala was right in his decision to stay with the Communist party as the best vehicle for achieving socialism is a question Wadsworth does not address.

A welcome departure from the 1998 edition is the toning down of Wadsworth’s interpretation of Saklatvala as some kind of early black nationalist. Saklatvala was never that. From his earliest involvement in politics he was obsessed with informing the British working class and making them aware and involved in India’s struggle for freedom.

He help found the Workers Welfare League of India in 1916 with just such an aim and through it cemented a relationship with Arthur Field, a Battersea Labour-movement activist.

Wadsworth, with very little evidence, attributes his adoption as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Battersea to the influence of John Archer. A mixed-race Labour councillor and Mayor of the borough at the start of the 1914-18 war, he called a town meeting to rally men to the flag and join up.

But Saklatvala opposed the war and it was during the conflict that with his anti-war views he rose to prominence in the Independent Labour Party.

After the 1924 Labour Party conference voted to expel communists from the party Saklatvala, unlike Archer, campaigned for their re-admission.

When the Battersea Labour Party and Trades Council was disaffiliated because it refused to expel communists and a new “official” Battersea Labour party was established, Archer was its secretary. Thus, there seems little in Wadsworth’s assumption that Saklatvala and Archer were somehow allies.

A drawback of the book is its constant swipes at the Communist Party. Wadsworth suggests that it was Eurocentric because of its condemnation of a Parsi ceremony in which Saklatvala and his children were involved in 1927 at Caxton Hall.

It did so because it did not want one of its most popular propagandists perpetuating religious differences, an issue particularly important in India. Saklatvala agreed with the party’s stance and said in his defence that the affair was not under his control but “a family matter.”

Wadsworth also claims that Saklatvala was sidelined by the party leadership after he lost his parliamentary seat in 1929. Nothing could be further from the truth — his role in the party was primarily one of agitator, speaker and, for a while, MP. While in Parliament he was a member of the party's central committee. Once that period was over he went back to his favoured role, that of recruiting speaker.

After the Daily Worker was launched in 1930, a direct result of the new class-against-class policy that Saklatvala had been advocating since 1925 – well in advance of the Communist International – he toured the country and gained thousands of recruits for the party. He remained central to many of the party’s recruitment campaigns, particularly towards the end of his life.

In 1934, he visited the USSR and paid tribute to the developments in the eastern republics and how they were much more advanced than India. On his return, despite ill health, he toured the country eulogising Soviet achievements.

Despite the author’s unnecessary attacks on Saklatvala’s party and accusations of racism that have little foundation, this is worthy addition to the bookshelf.

Wadsworth brings to life Saklatvala and his involvement in the Labour movement and the struggle for colonial liberation and as such it is well worth a read — with one proviso: the references are often wrong, provide too little information and are mixed up.

For the reader’s sake, it's to be hoped the publisher corrects this before any further reprint.

Published by Peepal Tree Press, £14.99.

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