MN Roy

On Non-Violence and the Masses

Date: November 10, 1923
Published: Political Letters The Vanguard Bookshop, Zurich, 1924
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mike B.
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


My dear Comrade…

I cannot pass over the question of Non-violence without making a few remarks. It is an important question, so even at the risk of taxing your patience, I persist in a mutual understanding of it. First of all, you are wrong in classifying us among those romantic revolutionaries who preach violence without having the slightest notion of the gravity involved in the question. We are not enamoured with the idea of violence as an idea. We are not militarists. But we are realists. That is all. We have never preached the use of indiscriminate violence. What we have done, still do and will always do is to oppose the cult of Non-violence, which is a dangerous cult, and must be exposed in its true sinister significance. You need not remind us that there cannot be an armed revolution in a country in which the people are completely disarmed. Everyone who does not have the illusion that the Motherland can be freed by bombs and pistols, understands this hopeless plight of the country and appreciates the gravity of the situation. But there is a great difference between not preaching violence and preaching non-violence with a vengeance. If the idea behind the latter is to keep clear of the Penal Code, then the whole thing becomes miserably static. You cannot conform the Programme of a political party to the vagaries of the Penal Code. This has never been done anywhere in the world. And it will not be otherwise in India.

For example, shall the new party have a clear political programme? “Labour Swaraj” is not any more comprehensible than the Mahatma’s Swaraj, which was a “mental state”. Every political party in India must define its attitude vis à vis Imperialism. We have to declare what the political character of this “Labour Swaraj” will be. Will it be Dominion Status, or does it require separation from all Imperial connection? These are not sentimental questions. Hard facts of economics are involved in them. “Labour Swaraj” cannot be won, the “economic relief of the masses” cannot be secured, so long as the political life of India is not freed from Imperialist domination, which protects the monopoly of British capital. So if we are sincere in our profession of “Labour Swaraj”, we will be forced to demand a political status, the fight over which will mock at all our silly talk about Non-violence. Let me remind you again that we do not preach violence out of any love for it. We are not more bloodthirsty than Maharaj Budha, or the Mahatmaji. But we are realists enough to see that the economic condition of the masses cannot be in any way improved unless first of all, the monopoly of Imperialist capital is broken. What does this lead to? It means that a party of Workers and Peasants must necessarily fight for complete national freedom and the establishment of a Republic. As soon as a party commits itself to this first principle of politics, it logically launches itself on a career which will inevitably bring it into conflict with the Penal Code and to frequent encounters with the wily custodians thereof. Thus, the simple use of the term “non-violence" cannot save us from the clutches of the I.P.C. unless this magic term eventually damns our whole programme and makes of us despicable hypocrites.

There is another aspect of the question. To define clearly that our political programme calls for the complete separation from all imperial connection and the establishment of a national republican government does not by any means lead to the committing of futile acts of terrorism, or even to an immediate armed revolt. It is quite a constitutional position which can be taken without the least violation of the tactics of Non-violence. In Great Britain, one can freely give vent to this political principle, and the “Independence Party” of Hazrat Mohani has taken up the same position, under the protection of the constitutional safeguards of bourgeois democracy. Further, where do you find any preaching of violence in our Action Programme? Our tactics can be summarized in the phrase, — “Mass-action”. No party of workers and peasants can be built without subscribing to these tactics. We do not preach insurrection, nor do we incite to bloodshed, so we are innocent as far as legal technicalities are concerned. But Imperialism does not follow such a sterile statical course. Even the poor Mahatma could not keep out of jail, although he made a veritable fetich of non-violence, and sacrificed a great revolutionary movement on the altar of his own ideosyncracies, which socially speaking, are of a very sinister kind. It is not legal or technical violence that the ruling-class is apprehensive about. Such outgrowths can be dealt with rather easily. The suppression of the terrorist societies of Bengal and the Punjab and of the attempted insurrection in the beginning of the war are examples. The government dread more than anything else the least signs of social violence, manifested through any political movement of the masses. Therefore, any party which will reflect the needs, desires, and spirit of the masses, cannot be considered peaceful in so far as the ruling class is concerned. You cannot fool the Government by shouting from the housetops the refrain: “We are a Party of Non-violent Revolutionaries.” As soon as a party is formed with the object and determination to conquer freedom for the toiling masses, the wrath of the government, as well as of our own propertied classes, will be invoked. The mere use of the phrase “Non-violence” cannot avert this eventuality.

My suggestion is to drop the term Non-violence from our programme, but to be careful that no attempt at premature action is made; on the other hand, we shall not preach violence as such. We shall simply state our political demands, economic programme and social ideals, and formulate in clear language the method of fight by which we propose to realize this programme, — that is, by the widespread and militant use of direct action by the working masses.

I cannot share your pessimism about the spirit of the masses. The events of the last several years, and those which are taking place even in these days of depression, do not permit me to realize that it will take one or two generations before we can rouse the masses to organize. The fault is not with the masses, but with the so-called leaders. Then, if it is true that the masses are as apathetic as you picture, why talk of a party of the workers and peasants? We must sacrifice a bit of our cherished subjectivism before we can take a healthy view of the situation. You will excuse me if I point out some flaws in your generally admirable spirit. Unconsciously, by not approaching the problem from quite the right angle, you are already limiting the scope of the party. You would give the first place to the “relief of economic conditions.” Here you undertake something impossible. How can you relieve the economic condition of the masses without first removing the causes of this economic condition? Our programme, no doubt, calls for the socio-economic freedom of the producing classes. But to say that we must first of all work for a generation to improve the economic condition of the workers, is putting the cart before the horse. Not the goal itself, but the striving for the goal must precede its actual attainment. Economic and social emancipation can only follow upon a complete change in the present political order. It is a mistake to imagine that the toiling masses will organize themselves and will take part in the political movement only when, after a generation or two, their economic condition is relieved. This is the theory of Reformism, as exemplified, in the economic organization of the British working-class, whose participation in politics is a comparatively recent affair. By narrowing the primary aim of our party to the economic relief of the masses, you necessarily limit the scope of activity to reformist Trade Unionism and rural cooperative movements. This originally, is not what you aim at. Our task which demands the organization of a working-class party altogether free from upper-class meddling, is to organize and lead the toiling masses in the fight which will conquer step by step, the freedom of their class and eventually of the whole society. Therefore, let us clarify our views by such a formulation of the question:

“Our object is the economic freedom of the producing classes; this ultimate goal will be attained after a long and bitter struggle; therefore, our primary task is to organize the masses and lead them in the struggle for economic freedom.”

Looked at from this point of view, the whole scheme of organization, tactics, plan of action etc. assumes a changed aspect. Yes, we must fight, struggle, be ready for defeats and disappointments, but once we have consciously set our feet on the right road, with a clear vision of the task ahead, nothing can daunt us and all causes for pessimism disappear.

November 10, 1923


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