This letter was Bhagat Singh’s last political testament. It was written by him on death row, and was originally written in English. A censored version was was published on 2 February 1931; all references to congress leaders and Soviet Union, Marx, Lenin and the Communist Party were carefully deleted. Bhagat Singh was executed a month-and-a-half later, on 23 March 1931.
The government of India published this uncensored version much later, in one of its secret reports in 1936.
The central question the letter tackles is the question of tactical compromise. There was speculation at time of an agreement between the British Government and the Indian National Congress led by Gandhi, and in this context Singh was positioned as a socialist revolutionary who was not only against the British, but also against India’s national bourgeoisie.
Singh discusses question of waging political struggle on a Nationalist basis versus a Socialist basis, the question of violence in political action (particularly pertinent given Gandhi’s well-known advocacy of “non-violence”), and having realistic expectations about time and effort.
Chaman Lal has compiled many of these documents in The Bhagat Singh Reader (2019). This prelude was taken from that book.
I have edited this edition of the letter slightly for the sake of readability, correcting errors and tuning some phrasing. — R. D.
Our movement is passing through a very important phase at present. After a year’s fierce struggle some definite proposals regarding constitutional reforms have been formulated by the Round Table Conference, and the Congress leaders invited […] think it desirable in the present circumstances to call off the movement. Whether they decide in favour or against is a matter of little importance to us. The present movement is bound to end in some sort of compromise. The compromise may be effected sooner or later. And compromise is not such an ignoble and deplorable thing as we generally think. It is, rather, an indispensable factor in political strategy. Any nation that rises against its oppressors is bound to fail in the beginning, and to gain partial reforms during the medieval period of its struggle, through compromises. It is only in the last stage — having fully organized all the forces and resources of the nation — that it can possibly strike the final blow which might succeed in shattering the ruler’s government. But even then it might fail, which makes some sort of compromise inevitable. This can be best illustrated by the Russian example.
In 1905, a revolutionary movement broke out in Russia. All the leaders were very hopeful. Lenin had returned from the foreign countries where he had taken refuge. He was conducting the struggle. People came to tell him that a dozen landlords were killed and a score of their mansions were burnt. Lenin responded by telling them to return and to kill twelve hundred landlords and burn as many of their palaces. In his opinion that would have meant something even if the revolution failed. The Duma was introduced.  In 1907, the same Lenin advocated for participation in the Duma. In 1906 he was opposed to the participation in the first Duma, though it had more scope of work than the second one, whose rights had been curtailed. This was due to changed circumstances. Reaction was gaining the upper hand and Lenin wanted to use the floor of the Duma as a platform to discuss socialist ideas.
Likewise after the 1917 revolution, when the Bolsheviks were forced to sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Everyone except Lenin was opposed to it. But Lenin said: “Peace. Peace and again peace. Peace at any cost — even at the cost of the many Russian provinces to be yielded to the German warlord.” When some anti-Bolsheviks condemned Lenin for this treaty, he declared frankly that the Bolsheviks were not in a position to face the German onslaught, and that they preferred that treaty to the complete annihilation of the Bolshevik Government.
The thing that I want to point out is that compromise is an essential weapon which has to be wielded every now and then as the struggle develops. The thing that we must keep always before us is the idea of the movement. We must always maintain a clear notion of what is the aim whose achievement we are fighting for. This helps us verify the successes and failures of our movement and easily formulate the future programme. Quite apart from his ideal, Tilak’s policy, i.e., his strategy, was the best.  You are fighting to get sixteen annas from your enemy, but you get only one anna.  Pocket it and fight for the rest. What we criticize in moderates is their ideal. They start by trying to get one anna, and they can’t get even that. Revolutionaries must always keep in mind that they are striving for a complete revolution, for complete mastery of power in their hands. Compromises are dreaded as pitfalls because conservatives try to disband revolutionary forces after compromise. We must be very careful at such junctures to avoid any sort of confusion about the real issues, especially the goal. British Labour leaders betrayed their real struggle and have been reduced to mere hypocrite imperialists. In my opinion the diehard conservatives are better to us than these polished imperialist Labour leaders. For tactics and strategy one should study the life-work of Lenin. His definite views on the subject of compromise will be found in “Left-Wing” Communism.
I have said that the present movement, i.e., the present struggle, is bound to end in some sort of compromise or complete failure.
I said that because, in my opinion, this time the real revolutionary forces have not been invited into the arena. This is a struggle dependent upon middle-class shopkeepers and a few capitalists. Both of these, and particularly the latter, can never dare to risk their property or possessions in any struggle. The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in the factories, the peasantry and the labourers. But our bourgeois leaders do not and can not dare tackle them. The sleeping lion once awakened from its slumber shall become irresistible even after the achievement of what our leaders aim at. After his first experience with the Ahmedabad labourers in 1920, Mahatma Gandhi declared: “We must not tamper with the labourers. It is dangerous to make political use of the factory proletariat.”  Since then, they never dared approach them. There remains the peasantry. The Bardoli resolution of 1922 clearly defines the horror the leaders felt when they saw the gigantic peasant class rising to shake off not only the domination of an alien nation, but also the yoke of the landlords.
Our leaders prefer surrender to the British than to the peasantry, let alone to Pt. Jawaharlal.  Can you point out any effort to organize the peasants or the labourers? No. They will not run the risk. There they lack. That is why I say they never meant for a complete revolution. Through economic and administrative pressure they hoped to get a few more reforms, a few more concessions for Indian capitalists. That is why I say that this movement is doomed to die, maybe after some sort of compromise, or even without. The young workers, who in all sincerity raise the cry “Long Live Revolution,” are not well organized and strong enough to carry the movement themselves. As a matter of fact, even our great leaders, with the exception of perhaps Pt. Motilal Nehru , do not dare take any responsibility on their shoulders; that is why every now and then they surrender unconditionally before Gandhi. In spite of their differences, they never oppose him seriously, and resolutions have to be carried for the Mahatma. 
In these circumstances, let me warn the sincere young workers who seriously mean revolution that harder times are coming. Let them be aware, lest they get confused or disheartened. The experience gained through the two struggles of the Great Gandhi put us in a better position to form a clear idea of our present position and the future programme.
Allow me to state the case in the simplest manner. You cry “Long Live Revolution.” Let me assume that you really mean it. According to our definition of the term, as stated in our statement in the Assembly Bomb Case, revolution means the complete overthrow of the existing social order and its replacement with the socialist order. For that purpose our immediate aim is the achievement of power. As a matter of fact, the state, the government machinery, is just a weapon in the hands of the ruling class, to further and safeguard its interest. We want to snatch and handle it, to utilise it for the consummation of our ideal, i.e., social reconstruction on new, i.e., Marxist, basis. For this purpose we are fighting to handle the government machinery. All along we have to educate the masses and to create a favourable atmosphere for our social programme. Through the struggles we can best train and educate them.
With these things clear before us, i.e., our immediate and ultimate object having been clearly put, we can now proceed with the examination of the present situation. We must always be very candid and quite business-like while analysing any situation.
We know that since a hue and cry was raised about the Indians’ participation and share in the responsibility of the Indian government, the Minto–Morley Reforms were introduced, which formed a Viceroy’s council with consultation rights only.  During the Great War, when the Indian help was needed the most, promises about self-government were made, and the existing reforms were introduced. Limited legislative powers have been entrusted to the Assembly, but subject to the goodwill of the Viceroy.
Now is a third stage. Now reforms are being discussed, and are to be introduced in the near future. How can our young men judge them? This is a question; I do not know by what standard the Congress leaders are going to judge them. But for us, the revolutionaries, we can have the following criteria:
- Extent of responsibility transferred to the shoulders of Indians.
- Form of the Government institutions that are going to be introduced, and the extent of the right of participation given to the masses.
- Future prospects and safeguards.
These might require a little further elucidation. In the first place, we can easily judge the extent of responsibility given to our people by the control our representatives will have on the executive. Up till now, the executive was never made responsible to the Legislative Assembly, and the Viceroy had veto power, which rendered all the efforts of the elected members futile. Thanks to the efforts of the Swaraj Party, the Viceroy was forced every now and then to use these extraordinary powers to shamelessly trample the solemn decisions of the national representatives underfoot. This is already too well known to need further discussion. Now in the first place we must see the method of the executive’s formation: Whether the executive is to be elected by the members of a popular assembly or is to be imposed from above as before, and, further, whether it shall be responsible to the House or shall absolutely affront it as in the past.
As regards the second item, we can judge it through the scope of franchise. The property qualifications making a man eligible to vote should be altogether abolished and universal suffrage be introduced instead. Every adult, both male and female, should have the right to vote. At present we can simply see how far the franchise has been extended.
I may here make a mention about provincial autonomy. But from whatever I have heard, I can only say that the Governor imposed from above, equipped with extraordinary powers, higher and above the legislative, shall prove to be no less than a despot. Let us better call it the “provincial tyranny” instead of “autonomy.” This is a strange type of democratisation of the state institutions.
The third item is quite clear. During the last two years British politicians have been trying to undo Montague’s promise for another dole of reforms to be bestowed every ten years till the British Treasury exhausts.
We can see what they have decided about the future.
Let me make it clear that we do not analyse these things to rejoice over the achievement, but to form a clear idea about our situation, so that we may enlighten the masses and prepare them for further struggle. For us, compromise never means surrender, but a step forward and some rest. That is all, and nothing else.
Having discussed the present situation, let us proceed to discuss the future programme and the line of action we ought to adopt.
As I have already stated, for any revolutionary party a definite programme is very essential. For, you must know that revolution means action. It means a change brought about deliberately by organised and systematic work, as opposed to sudden and unorganised or spontaneous change or breakdown. And for the formulation of a programme, one must necessarily study:
- The goal.
- The premises from where were to start, i.e., the existing conditions.
- The course of action, i.e., the means and methods.
Unless one has a clear notion about these three factors, one cannot discuss anything about programme.
We have discussed the present situation to some extent. The goal also has been slightly touched. We want a socialist revolution, the indispensable preliminary to which is the political revolution. That is what we want. Political revolution does not mean the transfer of the state (or, more crudely, power) from the hands of the British to the Indian, but to those Indians who are at one with us as to the final goal. Or, to be more precise, the power is to be transferred to the revolutionary party through popular support. After that, to proceed in right earnest is to organize the reconstruction of the whole of society on a socialist basis. If you do not mean this revolution, then please have mercy. Stop shouting “Long Live Revolution.” The term revolution is too sacred, at least to us, to be so lightly used or misused. If you say you are for national revolution and the aim of your struggle is an Indian republic of the type of the United States of America, then I ask you to please let it be known on what forces you will rely on to help you bring about that revolution. Whether nationalist or socialist, peasantry or labour, the Congress leaders do not dare to organize those forces. Congress leaders do not dare to organize those forces. You have seen it in this movement. They know better than anybody else that without these forces they are absolutely helpless. When they passed the resolution of complete independence — that really meant a revolution — they did not mean it. They had to do it under pressure of the younger element, and then they wanted to use it as a threat to achieve their hearts’ desire — Dominion Status.
You can easily judge it by studying the resolutions of the last three sessions of the Congress. I mean Madras, Calcutta, and Lahore. At Calcutta, they passed a resolution asking for Dominion Status within twelve months, otherwise they would be forced to adopt complete independence as their object, and in all solemnity waited for some such gift till midnight after 31 December 1929. Then they found themselves “honour bound” to adopt the Independence resolution, otherwise they did not mean it. But even then Mahatmaji made no secret of the fact that the door (for compromise) was open. That was the real spirit. At the very outset they knew that their movement could not but end in some compromise. It is this half-heartedness that we hate, not the compromise at a particular stage in the struggle.
Anyway, we were discussing the forces on which you can depend for a revolution. But if you say that you will approach the peasants and labourers to enlist their active support, let me tell you that they are not going to be fooled by any sentimental talk. They ask you quite candidly: What are they going to gain by your revolution for which you demand their sacrifices, what difference does it make to them whether Lord Reading is the head of the Indian government or Sir Purshotamdas Thakordas? What is the difference for a peasant if Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru replaces Lord Irwin? It is useless to appeal to his national sentiment. You can’t “use” him for your purpose; you shall have to mean seriously and to make him understand that the revolution is going to be his, and for his good. The revolution of the proletariat and for the proletariat.
When you have formulated this clear-cut idea about your goals you can proceed in right earnest to organize your forces for such an action. Now, there are two different phases through which you shall have to pass. First, the preparation; second, the action.
After the present movement ends, you will find disgust and some disappointment amongst the sincere revolutionary workers. But you need not worry. Leave sentimentalism aside. Be prepared to face the facts. Revolution is a very difficult task. It is beyond the power of any man to make a revolution. Neither can it be brought about on any appointed date. It is brought about by special environments, social and economic. The function of an organized party is to utilise any such opportunity offered by these circumstances. And to prepare the masses and organize the forces for the revolution is a very difficult task. It requires a very great sacrifice on the part of the revolutionary workers. Let me make it clear that if you are a businessman or an established worldly or family man, please don’t play with fire. As a leader you are of no use to the party. We have already very many such leaders who spare some evening hours for delivering speeches. They are useless. We require — to use the term so dear to Lenin — the “professional revolutionaries.” The whole-time workers who have no other ambitions or life-work except the revolution. The greater the number of such workers organized into a party, the great the chances of your success.
To proceed systematically, what you need the most is a party with workers of the type discussed above, with clear-cut ideas and keen perception and the ability to take initiative and make quick decisions. The party shall have iron discipline, and it need not necessarily be an underground party, rather the contrary. Though the policy of voluntarily going to jail should altogether be abandoned. That will create a number of workers who shall be forced to lead an underground life. They should carry on the work with the same zeal. And it is this group of workers that shall produce worthy leaders for the real opportunity.
The party requires workers which can be recruited only through the youth movement. Hence we find the youth movement as the starting point of our programme. The youth movement should organize study circles, class lectures, and publication of leaflets, pamphlets, books and periodicals. This is the best recruiting and training ground for political workers.
Those young men, who may have matured their ideas and may find themselves ready to devote their life to the cause, may be transferred to the party. The party workers shall always guide and control the work of the youth movement as well. The party should start with the work of mass propaganda. It is very essential. One of the fundamental causes of the failure of the efforts of the Ghadar Party (1914-15) was the ignorance, apathy, and sometimes active opposition of the masses. And apart from that, propaganda is essential for gaining the active sympathy of and of and organising the peasants and workers. The name of party… a Communist party. This party of political workers, bound by strict discipline, should handle all other movements. It shall have to organize the peasants’ and workers’ parties, labour unions, and kindred political bodies. And in order to create political consciousness, not only of national politics but class politics as well, the party should organize a big publishing campaign. Subjects on all proletarians enlightening the masses of the socialist theory shall be within easy reach and distributed widely. The writings should be simple and clear.
There are certain people in the labour movement who enlist some absurd ideas about the economic liberty of the peasants and workers without political freedom. They are demagogues or muddle-headed people. Such ideas are unimaginable and preposterous. We mean for the economic liberation of the masses, and for that very purpose we are striving to win the political power. No doubt in the beginning we shall have to fight for little economic demands and privileges of these classes. But these struggles are the best means for educating them for final struggles to conquer political power.
Apart from these, there shall necessarily be organized a military department. This is very important. At times its need is felt very badly. But at that time you cannot start and formulate such a group with substantial means to act effectively. Perhaps this is the topic that needs a careful explanation. There is a very great probability of my being misunderstood on this subject. Apparently I have acted like a terrorist, but I am not a terrorist. I am a revolutionary who has got such definite ideas of a lengthy programme as is being discussed here. My “comrades in arms” might accuse me, like Ram Prasad Bismil, for having been subjected to certain sort of reaction in the condemned cell, which is not true. I have got the same ideas, same convictions, same zeal, and same spirit as I used to have outside, perhaps — nay, decidedly — better. Hence I warn my readers to be careful while reading my words. They should not try to read anything between the lines. Let me announce with all the strength at my command, that I am not a terrorist and I never was, except perhaps in the beginning of my revolutionary career. And I am convinced that we cannot gain anything through those methods. One can easily judge it from the history of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association. All our activities were directed towards an aim, i.e., identifying ourselves with the great movement as its military wing. If anybody has misunderstood me, let him amend his ideas. I do not mean that bombs and pistols are useless, rather the contrary. But I mean to say that mere bomb-throwing is not only useless but sometimes harmful. The military department of the party should always keep ready all the war-material it can command for any emergency. It should back the political work of the party. It cannot and should not work independently.
On these lines indicated above, the party should proceed with its work. Through periodical meetings and conferences they should go on educating and enlightening their workers on all topics.
If you start the work on these lines, you shall have to be very sober. The programme requires at least twenty years for its fulfilment. Cast aside youthful dreams of a revolution within ten years, of Gandhi’s utopian promises of Swaraj in one year. It requires neither emotion nor death, but a life of constant struggle, suffering and sacrifice. Crush your individuality first. Shake off dreams of personal comfort. Then start to work. Inch by inch you shall have to proceed. This work needs courage, perseverance and very strong determination. No difficulties and no hardships shall discourage you. No failure and no betrayals shall dishearten you. No troubles imposed upon you shall snuff out the revolutionary will in you. Through the ordeal of sufferings and sacrifice you shall come out victorious. And these individual victories shall be the valuable assets of the revolution.
Long Live Revolution!
A Russian legislative assembly. ↩
Bal Gangadhar Tilak (b. 1856-1920) was an Indian independence activist. He had socially and economically regressive views. ↩
Annas were a form of currency used in British India. ↩
The Times, May 1921. ↩
Jawaharlal Nehru (b. 1889-1964) would become the first Prime Minister of independent India. The honorific “Pt.” stands for “Pandit,” which means something like expert. Though Nehru was less revolutionary than Singh, Singh saw some hope in him. ↩
J. Nehru’s father. ↩
Mahatma is a title of respect for a spiritual person. Mohandas K. Gandhi came to be known as the Mahatma. ↩
This 1909 act of the UK parliament brought about a limited increase in Indian involvement in the governance of India. ↩