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Nigel Harris

Thorn in the crown

(July 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.89, July/August 1986, pp.8-9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

YOU MIGHT miss it. The shabby paint boasts, ‘Indian Renaissance Institute’. Inside, at the end of a long garden – full of mountain flowers at this time of year – is a pleasant colonial house, bathed in the soft evening sun.

A covered terrace shades wicker chairs and a table, a bit tatty now. There are photographs of a man in grey flannels and open necked white shirt with rolled up sleeves, very nineteen thirties.

The pictures are of M.N. Roy, once the terrifying voice of the Communist International in the cool corridors of British power in New Delhi, the Viceroy’s nightmare of Bolshevism.

This was the last house where Roy and his American wife, Ellen, lived. It is set in the foothills of the Himalayas at Dehra Dun.

Roy was a village boy who came to the big city about 1905. He started his political life throwing bombs at the British in Calcutta. For this discourtesy, he was locked up several times in Calcutta’s exceptional prisons.

In 1915 his group sent him to the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) to guide into eastern India a ship load of German arms with which to begin the revolutionary war of independence.

The attempt failed, so Roy went again. This time he moved on from the German embassy in Batavia to the one in Tokyo. He then travelled to warlord Peking to negotiate German arms shipments over China’s western border to India. Again the Germans balked and sent him to San Francisco where he married his first wife, Evelyn Trent, and thence to New York.

He was in New York when the United States entered the First World War. Immediately, the American police began rounding up Indians as German spies or collaborators. The Roys fled south, finally to Mexico, on the high tide of the famous peasant revolution (1910-1920).

Here, at last, the Germans paid up, but now it proved impossible to get back to India. After a major effort to do so, Roy gave up. Instead, he settled down, learned Spanish and threw himself into the politics of the Mexican left and the émigré North American radicals. He became the secretary of the Mexican Socialist Party and drafted its manifesto.

That might have been enough for a Bengali boy a long way from home. But it was not. Already, the world of socialist and anarchist politics worldwide was being transformed by the Russian revolution.

A Russian Bolshevik, Michael Borodin, trying to get into the United States, was refused entry and went south to Mexico to enter by the back door. It was not to be, for he was summoned home for the second

Congress of the Comintern in Moscow in 1920 – and took with him the two Roys as delegates of the Mexican Socialist Party (which, at the last minute, changed its name – but not its politics – to the Mexican Communist Party).

On the way, Roy stopped off in Berlin. For a short time, he plunged into the turbulent politics there, making friendships with some of the leaders of the German Communist Party that were later important.

In Moscow, the Comintern was preoccupied with the defence of the embattled young Soviet regime – to be achieved partly by the creation of a world proletarian movement and its alliance with the independent struggle of the national bourgeoisie of the ‘backward and colonial countries’.

There were very few representatives of these countries at the Congress and very little was known about them. Roy found himself cast in the extraordinary role of a leading representative of the ‘Asian revolution’ and of the jewel in the crown of the largest of the empires, the British.

It was this temporary privilege which allowed him to debate with Lenin and induced Lenin to recommend Roy’s thesis to be included in the minutes of the Congress as an addendum to the offficial resolution.

Lenin had however carefully amended Roy’s theses to dilute some important errors. Throughout the twenties, Roy developed an alternative ‘ultra-left’ position, summarised in three points:

  1. European capital had become heavily – decisively – dependent on the profits made in the colonies. The European workers’ revolution could not succeed unless a revolt in the colonies cut off this flow of profit. Instead of the colonial revolution being marginal to the European struggle, it had become central.
  2. Because of this dependence, European capital was obliged to make major concessions to the rising national bourgeoisie of the colonies, permitting it to develop its own capitalism – ‘the post-war imperialist finance capital demands the industrialisation of the colonial country [and] it is no longer possible to completely exclude the indigenous bourgeoisie from the profits of exploitation.’ (India in Transition, Aug 1922.)
  3. This changed position of the national bourgeoisie meant that it would not champion the independent struggle or the bourgeois revolution; it would settle for a compromise with imperialism. The only revolutionary struggle would be that of the social – rather than the national – movement, of peasants and workers, and this in the more advanced backward countries put on the agenda a workers’ revolution and the creation of Soviets.

In sum, there were no ‘stages’. The position of the Bolsheviks on the bourgeois revolution in Russia was repeated in the colonies – the bourgeoisie would not do it, and would bend all efforts to defeat revolution.

The position was ultra-left, but the deviation was a healthy one in comparison with what came later in the Comintern – the complete subordination of the social struggle to the national, of the peasants and workers to the national bourgeoisie.

After the Congress, Roy became an important Comintern agent – trying to organise a Communist Party from Indian political refugees in Tashkent, to foment rebellion among the border tribes of British India, producing a journal for clandestine despatch to India from Berlin.

Finally, as a member of the Executive Committee of the International, he participated in all major discussions – including the expulsion of Trotsky.

In the spring of 1927, he was despatched as Comintern representative to China just after the catastrophic defeat of the Chinese party by Chiang Kai-shek. He went, he thought, with the complete backing of Stalin, to launch a peasant revolution to destroy Chiang.

At the Congress of the Chinese party, however, he failed to win the party away from the preceding Comintern line – support for the left Kuomintang and, very softly, support for the peasant movement (a line maintained by his old friend, Michael Borodin).

As he was to admit later, it was impossible to support the peasant revolution and the landlords of the Kuomintang at the same time.

He was recalled, and held to be responsible for the disasters that followed from Stalin’s policy (although he had himself been a party to that policy). Fearing the worst, he made a secret escape to Berlin.

There he became involved with his old friends, Brandler and Thalheimer, in a Communist Opposition to the Comintern (a protest against the Comintern’s Third Period), and that sealed his fate in Moscow.

In 1930 Roy at last returned to India, to a world of stifling backwardness. Arrested by the British, he served six years of his twelve year sentence in gaol. He then joined the Congress and became active trying to create a Marxist wing.

But on the outbreak of the Second World War he demanded a united anti-fascist movement against Germany and opposed demands for Indian independence until this was accomplished.

That earned him the charge of being a collaborator of British imperialism from the Communist Party up to the time when Germany invaded Russia – and the CP adopted the same line as Roy.

Lenin’s defeatism, Roy said, was wrong in the Second World War because the Soviet Union now existed and Europe was dominated by fascism (so the Second World War was also a European civil war). He was expelled from Congress.

Later he came to argue that the mistake of the Comintern was to orient on one class only, to generalise from the fluke of Russian experience which could never happen again. The unification forced on all classes by the threat of fascism would after the war provide the basis for universal socialism without the need for revolution. In India that needed a philosophical revolution, the renaissance, embodied in his ‘Radical Humanism’. In 1954, he died.

The old man who took me round the house got a bit breathless. ‘We hoped to make it a museum and library for world Radical Humanists,’ he said. ‘But we are very few now, and the house is costly to run. So we sent the archives to the Nehru library in Delhi. And now we let the house to paying guests.’

Do the paying guests sense the ghosts of Bengal terrorists and German spies, of Zapata and Madera, of Lenin and Trotsky?

The house sleeps, its historical significance seeping away, remembered by fewer and fewer. It is a pity the new generation will not remember the audacity and heroism of the past – but a relief also that they are preserved from its nightmares.

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Last updated: 10 April 2010