The Odyssey of M.N. Roy
The Uzbek authorities have erected gay green-painted tin facades in front of the old mohalla of Sibzar in Tashkent, lest the lot of the working-classes detract attention from the nearby spanking Khast-Imam complex. Enter through that little gate cut in the fence, and you will find yourself in the haunts of Manabendra Nath Roy -- radical of Calcutta, insurrectionist of Palo Alto, founder of the Communist Parties of Mexico and India -- sent by Lenin from Moscow to Tashkent in 1920 with two trainloads of armaments to set up a school for training Indian revolutionary cadres dedicated to overthrowing the British government in an Eastern repeat of the October revolution.
M.N. Roy was born as Narendra Nath Bhattacharya near Kolkata in 1886. His father was a village temple priest, and while as a boy he got a smattering of Sanskrit in the village educational system, M.N. Roy had no formal education and was basically self-taught. Radicalized early by Aurobindo Ghose (Sri Aurobindo) and Jatindranath Mukherjee (Bagha Jatin), he joined the Bengali revolutionaries committed to overthrowing the British Raj.
Shortly after the breakout of World War I in September 1914, Indian-independence seekers recognized that splits in the ranks of Europeans no longer afforded the 'sahibs' an united front against the aspirations of the colonies, and that the Austro-German confederation could be engaged to neutralize the advantages of the use of modern arms that the British colonial state possessed over the ragtag revolutionaries of India. An International Pro-India Committee was formed at Zurich; it merged into the Indian Independence Party, led by Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (Chatto, Sarojini Naidu's brother). Advised by Berlin, the German Ambassador Johann von Bernstorff in Washington arranged with Franz von Papen, his military attaché (as well as future Nazi boss and German Chancellor), to send arms consignments from California to secret dropoff locations on coast of Orissa. The Indians were to pay for these arms -- the Bengali revolutionaries under Bagha Jatin and Rashbehari Bose started raising the money by conducting a series of robberies. Jatin relocated to a hideout in Orissa near the Balasore coast; and, in April 1915, sent Narendra Bhattacharya to Batavia, to make a deal with the German authorities concerning the supply of arms.
Narendra traveled under many names -- Charles A. Martin, Hari Singh, Mr. White, D. Garcia, Dr. Mahmud, Mr. Banerjee. Through the German Consul in Batavia, Narendra met the brother of Karl Helfferich, secretary of the treasury for the German empire, who assured him that cargoes of arms and ammunition were already on their way "to assist the Indians in a revolution", but not much more in terms of specifics. He then seems to have traveled to Shanghai, Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Philippines, and America in search of armed assistance for the Indian revolution. Traveling to Japan as Mr White, Narendra met Rashbehari Bose in Tokyo, as well as the exiled Chinese President Dr Sun Yat-Sen, who helped arrange that he would receive ammunition supplies from two Chinese governors near the Assam border that would be paid for by German sources. With this brief, Narendra went to China; the German Ambassador in Peking arranged a passport in the name of Father Charles Martin so that he could go to the United States ostensibly to study theology at Notre Dame University.
Meanwhile, the Indo-German plot leaked out via Czech spies in the USA. In 1915, Emanuel Viktor Voska had organized ethnic Czechs in the USA into a network of counter-espionage. The Czechs, presumed to be German supporters, were involved in spying on German and Austrian diplomats, and had succeeded in infiltrating German members of the plot; it has been claimed that had E. V. Voska not interfered in history, nobody would have heard about Mahatma Gandhi and the father of the Indian nation would have been Bagha Jatin. Voska learnt of the arms-acquisition through his network and, as pro-American, pro-British and anti-German, he spoke of it to Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the future president of Czekoslovakia. Masarayk calculated that betraying the Indian cause would help the Czech cause; he informed the Americans, the Americans informed the British, and Bagha Jatin died in a hail of police gunfire in Orissa in September 1915.
In June 1916, his original mission overtaken by events, dogged by revelations from the Czech agents, Narendra arrived in San Francisco, the local newspapers declaring that "a dangerous Hindu revolutionary, German spy, lands in USA." He seems to have made his way undetected to Stanford University, where he was sheltered by Professor Dhanagopal Mukherjee, the younger brother of Jadugopal Mukherjee, Bagha Jatin's successor in Bengal. Dhanagopal changed Narendra's name, introducing him to Dr. David Jordan, Stanford's progressive president, as Manabendra Nath Roy.
At Dr. Jordan's house, Roy met his future bride, Evelyn Trent. A few months later, they were married in New York, living in the house of Lala Lajpat Rai, studying Marxism in the public library.
In 1917 America declared war on Germany; Indian revolutionaries were immediately suspect as possible German spies. The Roys fled to Mexico with an introductory letter from Dr. Jordan. As Mexico toyed with a German alliance (with a goal of recovering lost territories should the Kaiser win) M.N. Roy met Mexico's President Caranza, leading Mexican intellectuals, as well as the 'rebels' under Pancho Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south. Delivering lectures and writing articles, M.N. Roy learned to speak Spanish, French, and German, gathering great influence and becoming a sort of unofficial adviser to the Mexican left. In December 1917, Roy founded the Socialist Party Conference, which was eventually renamed the Communist Party of Mexico, the first communist party outside Russia, after the October revolution.
In Mexico, the Roys gave shelter to a penniless Mikhail Borodin, one of the founding members of the Bolshevik party and then Comintern agent. On the basis of a grateful Borodin’s report, Lenin invited M.N.Roy to the 2nd World Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow during the summer of 1920. Upon arrival, Lenin personally received Roy with great warmth; Roy quickly entered the inner circle of Comintern, one of the few to challenge Lenin with success -- he argued for changes to Lenin’s Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions. Roy served as a member of the Comintern's Presidium for eight years, and at one point was a member of the Presidium, the Political Secretariat, the Executive Committee, and the World Congress.
Lenin's dream was another Bolshevik revolution in the East — especially India and China. M.N. Roy was to be an architect. Sent to Tashkent to prepare the soil for uprisings, in October 1920, M.N. Roy formed the Communist Party of India in exile -- reaching out to his erstwhile Bengali revolutionary colleagues who, at this juncture, were oscillating between armed revolt (personified by Chittaranjan Das) and Gandhi’s novel program of satyagraha. The latter won; Chittaranjan Das resigned his presidency of the Indian National Congress at the Gaya session after losing a motion to Gandhi's faction. Das then founded the Swaraj Party (with Motilal Nehru) and the banner of violent force to uproot colonialism was carried on by his lieutenants like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
Leading a Comintern delegation appointed by Stalin to develop agrarian revolution in China, M.N. Roy reached Canton in 1927. Disagreements between the CCP leaders, as well as with his former friend Borodin, coupled with Chiang Kai-Shek's ruthless suppression the Communists, led to a fiasco. Roy returned to Moscow where factions supporting Trotsky and Lenin's ADC Zinoviev were busy fighting with Stalin.
Stalin refused to meet Roy on his return from China. Seeing the purges coming, Roy escaped to Berlin with Bukharin’s help. His helper himself was purged, and forced to confess in the most famous of Stalin's show trials:
The monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable especially in the new stage of struggle of the USSR. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the USSR become clear to all.
Bukharin's last note to Stalin before his execution was to be a plaintive "Koba, why do you need me to die?"
In December 1929, the CPSU announced Roy’s expulsion from the Comintern. M.N. Roy returned to India, arriving in Bombay under one of his old noms-de-guerre, Dr. Mahmud, around 1930. He immediately contacted Subhash Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was to write of M.N. Roy:
There was a great deal of difference between us, and yet I felt attracted towards him... I was attracted to him by his remarkable intellectual capacity.
In July 1931, M.N. Roy was captured by the British, who had not forgotten the events of 1915, and who were further delighted to be able to humiliate and degrade one of the proteges of the great Lenin. (The great General Strike was a fresh memory.) M.N. Roy was tried on charges of sedition, sentenced to 12 years (which, on appeal, was reduced to 6 years hard labor), and placed in the Kanpur Jail. An international campaign to secure a commutation drew the support of Albert Einstein and Roger Nash Baldwin (a founder of the ACLU.) Released in November 1936 in broken health, Roy, invited by Nehru, went to Allahabad for recovery. Defying the Comintern order to boycott the Indian Congress, there he urged Indian communists to join forces with the Congress. Nehru, in his presidential address at Faizpur session of the Congress in 1936, greeted the presence of Roy as
one who, though young, is an old and well-tried soldier in India’s fight for freedom. Comrade M.N. Roy has just come to us after a long and most distressing period in prison, but though shaken up in body, he comes with a fresh mind and heart, eager to take part in that old struggle that knows no end till it ends in success.
Gandhi was less charitable; upon hearing Roy's thoughts on the primacy of an agrarian social revolution over the sort of brahmin-baniya led national one that the Congress was espousing, Gandhi bitingly advised Roy to stay out of Indian politics, and just "render mute service to cause of Indian freedom." Kris Manjapra writes in his book M.N. Roy - Marxism and Colonial Cosmopolitanism:
If Gandhi's Swaraj politics envisioned territorialisation of the Indian nation-body, there was another powerful trajectory of Indian anti-colonialism that originated in Bengal, and asserted that autonomy could best be established through deterritorial practices of travel, coalition building and modernist cultural promiscuity.
When World War II broke out, M.N. Roy had come the full circle with respect to Germany; despite his incarceration by the British, he supported the Allied Powers and vigorously joined the war effort because he considered the declining imperialism a lesser evil to the rising fascism, which he felt would be a menace to mankind.
Roy's main critique of Gandhi was that he and his inner circle imposed their tactics from above on the rank and file, and that their organizational legacy would mostly be an "authoritarian dictatorial" high-command, a position that recalled his experience of the inner working of the Comintern. He was also unhappy with Gandhi's opposition to the Allied War effort. Roy broke definitively with the Bengal politicians with his opposition to Subhas Bose's involvement with Hitler's Nazis, and his bitter warnings "that the evil of fascism knows no boundaries". His long-time associates like Jiban Lal Chatterjee (whose swadeshi gang had robbed my grandparents of their life's savings in 1930) broke with him after his criticism of Bose and Gandhi.
(Interestingly, there is a historical footnote to the thread of armed revolution that informed much of M.N. Roy's odyssey. Chief Justice P.B. Chakrabarty of Calcutta High Court, who had also served as the acting Governor of West Bengal in India, wrote a letter addressed to the publisher of R.C. Majumdar's book A History of Bengal:
In the preface of the book Dr. Majumdar has written that he could not accept the thesis that Indian independence was brought about solely, or predominantly, by the non-violent civil disobedience movement of Gandhi. When I was the acting Governor, Lord Atlee, who had given us independence by withdrawing the British rule from India, spent two days in the Governor's palace at Calcutta during his tour of India. At that time I had a prolonged discussion with him regarding the real factors that had led the British to quit India. My direct question to him was that since Gandhi's "Quit India" movement had tapered off quite some time ago and in 1947 no such new compelling situation had arisen that would necessitate a hasty British departure, why did they have to leave? In his reply Atlee cited several reasons, the principal among them being the erosion of loyalty to the British Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Netaji. Toward the end of our discussion I asked Atlee what was the extent of Gandhi's influence upon the British decision to quit India. Hearing this question, Atlee's lips became twisted in a sarcastic smile as he slowly chewed out the word, "m-i-n-i-m-a-l!")
In his later years, M.N. Roy was an influential voice in the process of drafting the Indian Constituent Assembly, in favor of decentralization, a federal basis to state power, and the recognition of the rights of the minority communities and the regions. M.N. Roy had by this time moved beyond Marxism; he called himself a radical humanist and sketched out a social activist position from the political center, in doing so attracting the ire of both the Hindu Right and the transnational Left. Recently, the International Communist League wrote:
M.N. Roy’s most lasting contribution to “Communism” was his attempt to reconcile it with bourgeois nationalism. His “non-doctrinaire” approach to communist theory, so admired by many academic pseudo-Marxists today, consisted in pushing proletarian subordination to the bourgeoisie in the colonial world. As noted above, this was anything but a new approach, owing much to the Narodniks and SRs. Its results in China in 1925-27 were horrific and counterrevolutionary. And we also note, with the benefit of more hindsight than Lenin and Trotsky had, that the results of bourgeois nationalism in power in the former colonies in the last half of the 20th century and today have similarly been horrific and counterrevolutionary.
Throughout the Indian subcontinent, from Kashmir to Jaffna, the imperialist-dependent capitalist rulers have built upon the fratricidal divisions inherited from imperialism, promoting social backwardness of every kind and practicing state-sponsored communalist slaughter of minority peoples. Real national and social liberation of the working class and oppressed Third World masses cannot be accomplished under the rule of the neocolonial bourgeoisie, as Trotsky explained in putting forward the program of permanent revolution. The first condition for the proletariat being able to carry out its revolutionary role is the scrupulous safeguarding of its class independence from the bourgeoisie.
The Jana Sangh writes:
The idea of the proletarian revolution as distinct from nationalism came to India and was exhibiting itself in unprecedented strikes. Nationalism was confined to the bourgeois. Their government "would not be less oppressive than the foreigner. Self-determination for India merely encourages the idea of bourgeois nationalism".
The prejudice in the system was self-evident. Roy's antinationalism or anti-Hinduism, must have been so intense that he overlooked the fact that proletarian revolution was little else but the replacement of British with Russian rule, of London with Moscow.
In recent years, M.N. Roy's radical humanism seems to have found the most resonance with Bertrand Russell-style rationalists. One of them, reviewing Ramendra Nath's "M.N. Roy’s New Humanism and Materialism" writes:
[The author] places Roy’s ideas in the context of the history of materialist philosophy, including a tantalizingly brief mention of Lokayat or Charvaka, an ancient Indian school of materialist thought. While Roy opposed the glorification of India’s so-called spiritual heritage, he favored a rational and critical study of ancient Indian philosophy. He thought it might do for India what the rediscovery of ancient Greek thought did for Europe in the Renaissance.
Roy’s version of materialism was an ethical philosophy. He believed that human beings have the power to make free and rational choices, and that they have a duty to do this without debasing themselves before imaginary supernatural beings.
Dr. Ramendra explains how Roy’s thought differed from Marxian materialism. According to Roy, Marxian determinism did not allow for human freedom and it neglected ethics. Like Bertrand Russell, Roy perceived there is no logical connection between Marx’s philosophical materialism (there is no supernatural reality) and his historical materialism (everything in history has economic causes).
I would particularly recommend the essay, “Why I Am Not a Hindu,” to North American humanists. We North American humanists sometimes think of Indian philosophy in terms of swamis and yogis, and to give them the benefit of the doubt which we do not extend to the Christian religion. Dr. Ramendra’s book on M.N. Roy reminds us that there is another tradition in Indian philosophy, one which it would behoove us to learn about.
Below, an extract from The Brahmin In the Comintern, a 2007 French documentary on M.N. Roy.
From Mexico to Russia, Germany, India, Vladimir Leo goes in search of a great adventurer-philosopher-revolutionary of Bengal: MN Roy. In the countries he visited, his memory seems to have almost completely vanished today, despite the important political role he could play. Founder of a communist party in Mexico for Zapata, leader of the Communist International in the early years of Soviet Russia, anti-Stalinist and anti-Nazi activist in Germany pre-war politician, philosopher and atheist in India independence, the official histories of these countries have preferred to delete the trace. Was it too loose? Was it too lonely? Vladimir Leon chronicles the life of this singular and modest hero who crossed all major milestones of our twentieth century. For this, he takes us on three continents, filming carefully the world as it is, echoing the story of this turbulent political past. In meetings of witnesses, direct or indirect, takes shape the fantastic geographical and philosophical trajectory of MN Roy, if humanly fragile, so farsighted.
Dr. Salim: The difficulty was that he could not stick to one particular ideology ... that was his failure.
Vladimir Leo: It's a failure?
Dr. Salim: Yes, it was a failure.
LE BRAHMANE DU KOMINTERN [extrait]