By Jesse McLaren
“In view of the fact that the power of international capital is rooted all through the globe, anything less than a worldwide revolution would not bring about the end of the capitalist order and the triumph of the proletariat in Europe. The struggle of the European proletariat must be aided by the revolutionary action of the toiling masses of other lands subjugated by the same power, that is, capitalist imperialism.”- MN Roy, 1921
October 17 is the centenary of the founding of the Indian Communist Party by Manabendra Nath Roy. MN Roy founded the Communist Parties of both Mexico and India, debated Lenin and challenged Gandhi, but has been written out of history by some. Socialism is often reduced to Europe while anti-colonialism in India is often reduced to Gandhi. But Roy’s life and politics in the 1920s embodied the connection between socialism and anti-colonialism that continues to inspire.
“From die-hard nationalism to Communism”
MN Roy was born as Narendra Nath Bhattacharya in 1887, and as a teenager joined the national liberation movement against Britain’s colonial occupation. Many nationalists saw gaining independence as a military operation, and looked to rival imperial powers to assist them in driving out the British during World War I. As Roy recalled, “By the beginning of 1916, there was practically no military force to defend the British power in India. The Indian officers of the skeleton army stationed here and there were eager to join a popular uprising. We had established contact with them all over the country already in the middle of 1915. The situation was fully appropriate for an armed uprising. But at the crucial moment, the Germans failed to keep their promise.” Betrayed by European imperialists, he looked to Asian nationalists for support but was further disillusioned: “Thrown back upon my wits [by Japan’s alliance with Britain], I looked to the Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen…But my faith in racial solidarity was shaken rudely by the refusal of the prophet of Asiatic nationalism to help India against Britain.”
Going further abroad in support of arms and support, Roy ended up in San Francisco. There he connected with other Indian exiles and US socialists, including meeting his partner Evelyn Trent. Both groups came under attack by the US government when it joined WWI. Narendra Nath Bhattacharya changed his name to Manabendra Nath Roy, both to escape the police and as part of his political rebirth. Initially reading Marxism in order to argue against it, he found himself won over to a new strategy for national liberation: “‘What difference would it make to the Indian masses if they were exploited by native capitalists instead of foreign imperialists?’… Suddenly, a light flashed through my mind; it was a new light…visualising a different picture of freedom.”
While he engaged Marxist theory in the US, it was in Mexico that he engaged in practice—completing his political evolution “from die-hard nationalism to Communism.” Roy and Trent joined hundreds of radicals who fled the US to escape prison or military service, and found in Mexico a country in the midst of revolution—both against imperial powers and its own local ruling class. This provided Roy with a new framework to understand national liberation for his own country:
“In Mexico I realised, what I could not do in China, that national independence was not the cure for all the evils of any country. These thoughts raised in my own mind a question which provided the clue for a better understanding of Indian history…The poverty of the Indian masses was the result of economic exploitation by British imperialism and native feudalism. The liberation of the Indian masses, therefore, required not only the overthrow of British imperialism but subversion of the feudal-patriarchal order which constituted the social foundation of the foreign political rule. The corollary was that India needed a social revolution not mere national independence.”
Having initially left India in search of arms for a small-scale military assault on British colonialism, his experience instead taught him the necessity of large-scale political revolution. As he described, his experience in the US and Mexico had “revolutionized my idea of revolution….Social forces antagonistic to the established order must, in the first place, be politically mobilized and recruited in the army of revolution. Only then would arise the question of arming the soldiers ready to fight for liberation. Our old idea of revolution put the cart before the horse.”
The other country that revolutionized his idea of revolution was Russia. The Bolsheviks had organized an insurrection only after mass political mobilization, and the workers’ state challenged imperialism and supported national liberation movements around the world. While the nationalists Roy worked with in India were focused exclusively on challenging foreign powers, the politics of the left in Latin America had the opposite problem of being indifferent to any state. But the Russian Revolution provided an alternative, a living example of both socialism and national liberation:
“The news of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had reached the New World to fire the imagination of all who dreamt of the proletariat capturing power. It was no longer a utopia. The manifesto calling for the formation of a working class party as the instrument for capturing political power, therefore, could not be dismissed as fantastic. The idea that to be actually in possession of political power might be within the realm of practical possibility shook the preconceived anarcho-syndicalist theoretical antipathy for the State. The manifesto found a widespread response. The issue of La Lucha in which it was first published had to be reprinted three limes.”
Roy and Trent joined local socialists to found the Communist Party of Mexico in 1919, the first Communist Party outside Russia. They then went as delegates to participate in the Communist International.
“The symbol of revolution the East”
As Roy explained, “Lenin had insisted that Socialists must support the movement for the autonomy of the national minorities subjugated by the Russian as well as the Austro-Hungarain Empire…A corollary to the policy in Europe was a demand for the liberation of the peoples subjected by colonial powers….Lenin drew the conclusion that successful revolt of the colonial peoples was a condition for the overthrow of capitalism in Europe. The strategy of world revolution should therefore include active support of the national liberation movement in the colonial countries.”
This included inviting anti-colonial revolutionaries to help shape the policies of the Communist International to reflect their experiences. At the 1920 Second Congress, Roy wrote a supplement that modified Lenin’s theses on national liberation; then at the 1922 Fourth Congress, Claude McKay and Otto Huiswood (Black leaders of the Communist Party of the US) drafted the Comintern’s resolution on Black liberation. Far from the Stalinized version of what became of the Comintern—a monolithic organization where international groups were expected to toe the party line dictated by Moscow—the early Comintern developed through democratic debate, including Roy debating Lenin. As Roy recalled:
“he argued that Imperialism had held the colonial countries back in feudal social conditions, which hindered the development of capitalism and thwarted the ambition of the native bourgeoisie…The Communists, therefore, must help the colonial liberation movement under the leadership of the nationalist bourgeoisie, regarding the latter as an objectively revolutionary force…I maintained that, afraid of revolution, the nationalist bourgeoisie would compromise with Imperialism in return for some economic and political concessions to their class. The working class should be prepared to take over at that crisis the leadership of the struggle for national liberation and transform it into a revolutionary mass movement… I reminded Lenin of the dictum that I had learnt from him: that without a revolutionary ideology, there could be no revolution. I had also learnt from him that for leading a mass movement step by step towards a definite goal, a purposeful organization inspired by a revolutionary philosophy was of supreme importance. That decisive factor was still absent in India. Our endeavour therefore should be to bring it into being by placing before the national liberation movement a concrete picture of its objective aspiration.”
Roy was central to two initiatives that followed this: the First Congress of the Oppressed Peoples of the East in September, 1920, and the founding of the Indian Communist Party on October 17, 1920.
Strategy and tactics of national liberation
This coincided with the launch of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement, which tested different strategies and tactics for national liberation. Prior to WWI the Congress was an upper middle class party advocating constitutional reforms, but in the aftermath of WWI they had a surge in popular support under Gandhi. As Roy explained, this was not because of his unique personality or the particular tactic of non-cooperation that he advocated. With Britain suppressing the armed strategy of the revolutionary nationalists, Gandhi harnessed the longstanding opposition to British colonial rule that exploded during and after WWI.
But despite mass support, Congress had a narrow economic base that restricted its strategy and tactics: “Big capitalists financially supported the Congress, and Gandhi’s religious ideology and the doctrine of trusteeship appealed to the mediaeval mentality of the landlords. He taught the workers not to look upon their employers as exploiters, but trust them as their elder brothers. The peasants were told that the landlords were the natural trustees of their interests.”
As a result, Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation was conditional, and his focus on non-violence was used to constrain the movement: when peasants rose up and refuse to pay taxes he opposed them, when workers rose up in mass strike at Ahmedabad he didn’t support them, and when people responded to police violence by burning down a police station at Chauri Chaura he denounced them and suspended the movement.
Two years after his first appearance at the Comintern, Roy addressed the Fourth Congress in 1922 to reassess the experiences and outline the next steps:
“In every conflict and struggle we see the interests of imperialist capitalism coinciding with those of the native landowners and the native feudal class. When the popular masses arise and the national movement becomes revolutionary in scope, it will threaten not only imperialist capitalism and the foreign domination. In addition, the native upper classes will join with the foreign exploiters. We see a dual struggle in the colonial countries, directed simultaneously against foreign imperialism and the native privileged classes, which indirectly or directly reinforce and support foreign imperialism… Thus we see that Communist parties are necessary, even if for the moment they are no more than cells. These parties are destined to play a great role and to take over the leadership in the national revolutionary struggle, when it is abandoned and betrayed by the bourgeoisie.”
The Fourth Congress outlined the method of the united front, whereby revolutionaries engage alongside reformists in the fight for reforms in order to make concrete gains, to expose the limitations of the bourgeois leaders, and to win people to socialist organization. As part of this method Roy outlined a social and economic program of national liberation that the Congress should adopt—including abolition of landlordism, nationalization of public utilities, minimum wage and the eight hour day, sickness and unemployment insurance, free education, religious freedom, and women’s equality. He also outlined a list of actions Congress should support—including nonpayment of rent and taxes, support for labour and tenant strikes, organizing trade unions and mass demonstrations for the release of political prisoners.
From Stalinism to individualism
But Communist Parties were too small to provide an alternative leadership to bourgeois nationalism, and revolutionary waves were rolled back—from Germany in 1919, to India in 1922, to China in 1926. As Roy explained in Lessons of the Chinese revolution,
“Like the Indian non-co-operation movement, the Chinese Revolution has suffered a temporary defeat because of the betrayal of the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist leaders. These turned against the revolution as soon as it threatened capitalist and land-owning interests. The development of the struggle for national freedom sharpened class-antagonism inside the Chinese society. Rather than sacrifice the sectional interests of the reactionary landlords and capitalists, the bourgeois nationalist leaders betrayed the revolution. Class solidarity cut across national solidarity.”
These successive defeats isolated the Russian Revolution, reinforced Stalin’s counter-revolution, and ended Roy’s decade of revolutionary theory and practice. Roy had been elected by the Communist International to assist with the Chinese revolution, and had opposed Stalin’s strategy of advocating for the Chinese Communist Party to merge with the the nationalist Kuomintang. When the Kuomintang then turned on the Communists and sabotaged the revolution, Stalin blamed Roy for the catastrophe. Roy was expelled from the Comintern, and the increasingly Stalinized party he had founded in India turned on him:
“The pioneers of the Communist Party of India all had their first lessons in applied Marxism, and indeed in revolutionary politics, from this book [India in Transition]. All frankly acknowledged the indebtedness. Subsequently, they denounced me as a renegade.”
Many other Communist leaders suffered the same fate—expelled, exiled or killed by Stalin’s counter-revolution—but drew different conclusions. Some, like Trotsky or CLR James, challenged Stalinism and upheld the tradition of revolutionary socialism. But others, like Roy, saw Stalinism as the inevitable result of socialism, and retreated into philosophy. Roy initially joined the Congress, met with Nehru and continued to urge the party to support a radical program of national liberation. But when Congress launched the Quit India movement to challenge British occupation in 1942 in the midst of WWII, Roy opposed the campaign and echoed the Stalinist appeal to support the “people’s war”. He left the Congress and briefly launched his own Radical Democratic Party, but then came to the conclusion that no parties are any good and dissolved it. Instead he devoted all his time to the individualist philosophy of “radical humanism”, with a focus on “man as a thinking being, and he can be so only as an individual.”
Despite the tragic betrayals and retreats at the end of his life when the world revolutionary wave receded, Roy’s earlier work during the rising wave of the 1920s continues to inspire. A century later capitalism continues to devastate the world with economic exploitation and national oppression. But with the shadow of Stalin’s counter-revolution fading, there’s a new generation reclaiming the long tradition of socialism and anti-colonialism, and their intersection that MN Roy embodied.
For more on MN Roy and the anti-colonialism following the Russian Revolution, see Liberate the Colonies! Communism and Colonial Freedom, 1917-24
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