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The Romantic Revolutionary

This Labour Day, Nandini Ramachandran remembers the political career of M.N. Roy, the globe-trotting humanist and radical

Nandini Ramachandran  1st May 2011

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Labourers chant slogans as they protest against bonded labour in Pakistan on May Day, 2010

.N. Roy is amongst the most storied figures in recent Indian history. Any attempt to tell Roy's story has to account for the polymath he was -- adventurist, journalist, theoretician, revolutionary, romantic, activist. He began his political life at fourteen, at the turn of the last century. As with many hotheads of his generation, he was forced to flee India when he ran afoul of the colonial government. His taste for trouble, though, remained with him all his long life; and he traipsed across the globe in pursuit of it time and again.

Living in Europe and America during World War I, Roy was taken in by trendy Bolshevism, and he was a founding member of the Communist Parties of India and Mexico. The CPI was founded in Tashkent, and all the founding members (including Roy's American wife) were exiles. It was to be many decades before 'Indian' communism arrived as an independent force. For his part, Roy reached Moscow by the early 1920s, where he became a respected voice within the Communist International (the Comintern).

Roy was one of the few theoreticians mapping out the possibility for Revolution in the East, and the Comintern often looked to him whilst formulating their policy on both India and China. True to form, Roy's analysis went against the conventional wisdom of the time. Most of the Comintern predicted that the fate of worldwide revolution lay in decimated post-war Germany. Roy argued that revolution in the West was doomed because the West had become the international bourgeois, living as it did off the back of its colonies. In this, he anticipated postcolonial scholarship, but the idea is remarkably subversive so early in the 20th century.

Roy convinced the Comintern that it was worth risking the wrath of Imperial Europe in order to support freedom movements across the globe. It was his acumen, moreover, which spotted the "dual revolution" conducting itself across India, again anticipating subaltern theorists. He believed that there were simultaneous freedom movements in India, and that the path to success was in using one set of actors to radicalise the other. It was on this basis that he made Lenin alter his Theses on the National and Colonial Question, which now held that "nationalist revolutionary" forces would be supported, not the "bourgeois democratic" forces originally mentioned.

Roy believed that the Non Cooperation movement and its "mass spirit", combined with the Russian Revolution's challenge to capitalism, had rattled imperial interests in Asia enough for colonialism to have evolved in the postwar world. The imperial government in India, he suggests,  turned 'reformist.' Following the Montague-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, it involved the native bourgeoisie in policy decisions in a process of gradual 'decolonisation'. This administration, further, found much in common with the native bourgeoisie, as both recognised their existence depended on extracting as much as possible from workers and peasants:

"Transfer of some political power to the native bourgeoisie does not weaken imperialism; because they wield this power not to further develop the struggle against imperialism but to suppress the revolutionary movement...we must prevent the fight for independence from being sacrificed on the altar of compromise between the native middle class and the imperialists"

The weirdest thing to come out of these Comintern deliberations was the position adopted towards the colonies. The compromise worked out was to prohibit communists from joining organisations that included ‘counter revolutionary’ forces (like the Indian National Congress). They were to organise along the lines of resistance movements- centralised, illegal, furtive.  This was to prove a calamitous i

The Non-Cooperation Movement was, by Roy's analysis, a negotiation between these two powerful forces. Once a deal was achieved, the Non-Cooperation movement was 'liquidated' by its 'bourgeois' leadership. As decolonisation continues and they are further enfranchised, he predicts the native elite will become outright reactionary, despite retaining their control of the Congress in the name of the people. In order to combat this, he argues, workers and peasants must ally themselves with the Congress and plan a Leninist insurrection-from-within.

It was this 'decolonisation' thesis that was to get Roy booted out of the Comintern. Unable to leave Germany during the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern, Roy had the ill fortune of being championed by Bukharin, who was chairing the Congress. Stalin, desperate to be rid of the Old Guard, allowed his apparatchiki free rein in distorting Roy's argument, and his theses were construed to mean that the British were, for mystifying reasons, literally de-colonising India.

The weirdest thing to come out of these Comintern deliberations was the position adopted towards the colonies. The compromise worked out was to prohibit communists from joining organisations that included 'counter revolutionary' forces (like the Indian National Congress). They were to organise along the lines of resistance movements- centralised, illegal, furtive.  This was to prove a calamitous injunction globally, and in India the CPI was wiped out from effectual politics at that critical juncture when the native elite were consolidating their power.

Thus it was in 1930 when Roy arrived in Bombay incognito. Months later, he was imprisoned by the Meerut conspiracy case. Released in 1936, he flirted with the Congress, despite his disdain for  Gandhi's 'politics of martyrdom'. He was disgruntled with Congress governance post the provincial elections, and in 1937 Roy abandoned his last ship. He grew apathetic toward political power, dedicating himself to promoting 'radical humanism' and the fight against fascism. In 1921, Roy believed that some ends justify means and that as long as a country espoused freedom, it was free. By 1941 he believed neither.

M.N. Roy straddles both 'internal' challenges to liberalism in the last century: socialism and nationalism. He used each to challenge the orthodoxies of the other, constructing an elegant (if neglected) analysis of self-determination movements along the way. Roy took upon himself the unenviable task of having faith but no obedience, and the price he paid for it was being right in obscurity.

The magic of Marxism, to Roy's devoutly logical mind, was its determined insistence on strategy. Translating objective statistics into subjective experience was, for him, the craft of survival. The rhetoric of liberalism and tradition he gladly relegated to 'superstructure'. Roy was as pragmatic about reality as he was passionate about lofty ideals, and on the appeal of Nationalism I let him speak for himself:

When I began my political life, which may end in nothing, I wanted to be free. Independence, complete and absolute, is a new-fangled idea. The old fashioned revolutionaries thought in terms of freedom. In those days, we had not read Marx. We did not know about the existence of the proletariat. Still, many spent their lives in jail and went to the gallows. There was no proletariat to propel them. They were not conscious of class struggle. They did not have the dream of Communism. But they had the human urge to revolt against the intolerable conditions of life under colonial rule. They did not know how those conditions could be changed, but they tried anyhow. I began my political life with that spirit, and I still draw my inspiration from it rather than from the three volumes of Capital or three hundred volumes by Marxists.

 
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