Dutt Rajani Palme

Rajani Palme Dutt

Born in Cambridge in 1896, the youngest of three siblings, Dutt was a leading figure in the British Communist Party from the beginning and for most of his life. His mother was Anna Palme, a Swedish writer and poet, and an aunt to Olaf Palme, later to be a Prime Minister of Sweden. His father, Upendra Krishna Dutt, was born in Calcutta in 1857, left for England to study medicine as a young man, and eventually settled there. Upendra Dutt practiced as a “sixpenny doctor” in the poorer communites of Cambridge. There, he hosted many Indian nationalist leaders visiting England. Clearly, this background was a more formative influence on the young Dutt, and his brother Clemens (see separate entry), also a life-time serving member of the British Party. There was also a sister, Ellie, who also a committed left-winger.

Exceptionally gifted academically, Dutt had a brilliant analytical mind, which made him a first-class student and later Party theoretician, as well as being an unexpected cartoonist, He came first out of eighty competitors for a scholarship at Oxford, but was suspended in 1916 for opposing the First World War and spent 56 days in prison as a result of his refusal to fight. He was a conscientious objector not for pacifist reasons but already had adopted a clear sense of Marxist internationalism.  His family had belonged to the SDF and its successors. On his release from prison, he was active in the anti-war movement and in October 1917 spoke in support of the Bolsheviks. In 1919 he was made international secretary of the Labour Research Department.

A member of the ILP, in 1920 he became a foundation member of the Communist Party. He founded and edited the magazine `Labour Monthly’ – not an official Party journal – from July 1921 until his death. Also in 1920 – in March – came his first book, the beginning of a long writing career, The Two Internationals, written in his capacity as secretary of the International Section of the Labour Research Department. It was the first to reprint in its entirety in Britain the manifesto of the Congress of the 1919 Communist International.

Together with Harry Pollitt and Harry Inkpin, he served on the Party Commission of 1922, which brought about the fundamental reorganisation of the Communist Party. He was first elected a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party from 1923, then being the youngest member. Dutt was a fluent Russian speaker and married Salme Murrik, a Comintern functionary (see separate entry).In May 1924, the Dutts went to live in Brussels for some ten years, citing ill-health as the reason; both were clearly playing some role in the Comintern. They returned to London in 1935.

Rajani Dutt was the author of many books: His Socialism and the Living Wage came out in 1927 and Fascism and Social Revolution in 1934. But his many books, notably India Today (1940), Britain’s Crisis of Empire (1949) and Problems of Contemporary History (1963) display a profound theoretical preoccupation with the anti-imperialist struggle.

He also played an especially important role in assisting the Communist Party of India in becoming established in its early years. Victor Gollancz, the publisher, was so concerned that India Today, when it came out in Left Book Club edition, would be accused of sedition that he forced Dutt to cut all references to revolution, including the phrase “industrial revolution”! Dutt’s personal dedication in this book displays clearly the influence of his background: “To the memory of my father, Upendra Krishna Dutt, born Calcutta, India, October 17, 1857, died Leatherhead, England, May 12, 1939, who taught me the beginnings of political understanding—to love the Indian people and all peoples struggling for freedom.”  Upendra had been a firm supporter of the Daily Worker.

For Raji Dutt, the sense of the gigantic nature of the suffering of the masses of India combined with a clear understanding of the importance to the people’s of Asia of the blow for popular sovereignty that the Russian Revolution had struck. (Dutt visited India, to speak at massive rallies, in 1946) This outlook may have been at the root of his seemingly over-phlegmatic observations on the practical individual human consequences arising from major political transformations. Thus, throughout, Dutt was especially vigilant over loyalty to the Soviet Union. In 1939, when Harry Pollitt initially supported Britain’s entry into World War II, it was Dutt who was foremost on the central committee in arguing the line that the war should be opposed, which resulted in Pollitt’s temporary resignation as General Secretary and his replacement by Dutt until 1941.

Although for many a controversial figure, unquestionably, “RPD’s” (he was Raji to close comrades) ‘Notes of the Month’ in Labour Monthly over 53 years give, at the very least in retrospect though many found them invaluable at the time, an unrivalled insight into British working class history, viewed with a sharp, some would say clinical, understanding of Marxism-Leninism. The journal played a decisive role in winning many left-leaning labour movement figures to accept the special role of the Communist Party. The back files of Labour Monthly are an invaluable but neglected asset to historians of British Communism.

Left: RPD in 1945

The spin some writers have put on the firmness of Dutt’s convictions in the face of challenge, allowing himself no emotional relexes on matters, all often conveyed in a cool manner, belies the very real affection that was generated for the man amongst many Communists in his lifetime. For, in close personal relations, he was surprisingly warm. It was largely the acuteness of Dutt’s intelligence, displayed in a remarkably dispassionate assessment of political situations, that impacted upon perceptions of him. For those who valued the shrewdness of his intervention in the drive for labour movement unity, Dutt was a towering figure.

In this context, acutely important discussions were initiated by Labour Monthly – on trades unionism in 1924, on international trade union unity and the implications for Anglo-Russian links in 1924-25, the united and popular fronts right across the 1930s, the surprisingly popular 1941 People’s Convention (1941), a discussion on the arts in 1967-68, on the realtionship between unions and Labour governments in 1969 and, in 1971, on the Common Market, or what would become the European Union.

In the aftermath of the difficult period of 1956, Dutt adhered to his infamous inflexibility and far-sighted sense of historical balance but in a manner that disturbed even some supporters of the British Party’s position on the revelations of Khrushchev and the events in Hungary. His infamous, almost flippant, comment in Labour Monthly inflamed some opinions but was meant to place in context the disillusionment of those who, he felt, ought not have illusioned in the first place: “That there should be spots on the sun would only startle an inveterate Mithras worshipper”.

He produced The International (1964) and contributed to the Outline History of the Communist International, produced by the institute of Marxism-Leninism of the USSR (English edition 1971). He left the Party’s Executive Committee in 1965, after serving for 42 years, having effectively been the party’s chief theoretician for many years. It was in the period following this, as the British Party began to assert an increasingly uneasy view of the position in the states of `real existing socialism that Dutt’s star began to wane. He differed sharply with the British Communist Party’s opposition to the Warsaw Pact intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. By this stage, he had retired from party leadership roles but remained a member until his death on December 20 1974. 

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