November 10, 2019

M N Roy: Pioneering Communist

MANABENDRA Nath Roy, popularly known as M N Roy, was an important figure in the early days of the Communist movement in India.  Roy was the initiator of the formation of the Communist Party in Tashkent in October 1920.  He played a pioneering role in spreading Marxist ideas and the role of a Communist Party amongst the fledgling Communist groups which emerged in India from 1921 onwards.

M N Roy’s revolutionary life was a colourful one and he went through many adventurous times before becoming a prominent figure in the Communist International. 

Roy was born in a village, Arbelia, in the 24 Parganas district of Bengal.  Even as a young teenager, Roy participated in the anti-British struggle as a member of a revolutionary group.  He was first arrested in connection with the Howrah conspiracy case, but was acquitted in 1911.  Subsequently, he became a member of the Yugantar group headed by Jatindranath Mukherjee.  Jatin’s group decided to seek German support for the fight against British. In April 1915, Roy was sent to Indonesia, then called the Netherlands Indies, to contact the German Consul there.  His attempt to send arms to Calcutta was unsuccessful. Meanwhile the British authorities had tracked down the conspiracy and Jatindranath was killed in an armed encounter.

In the meantime, Roy had returned to Java and decided not to return to India after these events.  He went to Japan, via Shanghai, and then on to San Francisco in the United States.   He made contacts with the Ghadar Party. From there he proceeded to New York to contact Indian revolutionaries there. It is at the New York public library that Roy first became acquainted with the writings of Karl Marx.  He was also influenced by the radical views of an American graduate student, Evelyn Trent, whom he had met in Stanford. He later married her.

Roy had to leave the United States because of an arrest warrant for illegal entry. He went to Mexico with his wife.  Until this stage, M N Roy was focused on how to raise funds and organise armed rebellion in India.  In Mexico, he associated with the Mexican Socialist Party, a small group at that time. He came in touch with Mikhail Borodin, who later became a leading functionary of the Communist International. It was Borodin who initiated him into Marxism.  Roy had very little formal education. He was self-taught and endowed with enormous intelligence. He mastered enough Spanish in a few months to write pamphlets and speak on public platforms. He became a leader of the Mexican Socialist Party and soon after converted the party into the Communist Party of Mexico in 1919. It was as a representative of the Mexican Communist Party that Roy went to attend the Second Congress of the Communist International which was held in Moscow in July-August 1920.    

M N Roy, new to Communism, became prominent in the Second Congress by submitting a supplementary thesis on the national and colonial question. Lenin had prepared a draft thesis on the national and colonial question, which was circulated among the delegates. Both Lenin and Roy’s theses were debated in the National and Colonial Commission.  Roy had argued in his supplementary theses that the bourgeoisie in India was not capable of putting up an effective fight against British imperialism and was compromising in character. He felt that the united front policies, which called for Communist support to national movements, was inappropriate for India. This was rejected by the Congress and various amendments were made to the supplementary theses of Roy.  Lenin’s thesis was adopted with some modifications.

The Comintern Congress elected M N Roy as a member of the executive committee of the Communist International.  Subsequently, he was made head of the Central Asiatic Bureau, in which capacity he went to Tashkent.  Here he got  in touch with the large number of Muhajirs who had come from India. He worked among them to convince them to join the Communist Party in order to pursue the goal of fighting British rule. It is in this process that Roy took the initiative to form the first Indian Communist group, on October 17, 1920.

Roy returned to Moscow and after discussions with the Communist International, it was decided that all Communist activities in India would be channeled through the group headed by Roy. His sojourn in the Comintern was notable. He was elected to the Presidium in 1926 and also held key positions in the Political Secretariat, the ECCI and the World Congress. 

From 1921 onwards, Roy kept up a barrage of letters and publications addressed to fledgling Communist groups and its leaders in India.  In May 1922, he started the journal The Vanguard of Indian Independence which continued with other names like the Advance Guard and the Masses of India till 1925.  This was the first Communist journal to reach India talking about Indian issues.  The British were vigilant.  They proscribed the journal and confiscated the bulk of the copies which were reaching India. 

It was in this period that he wrote his first book, India in Transition.  This book sought to do a Marxist analysis of the economy, polity and ideology in India under British rule. This book had a big impact upon those looking towards Communism in India. M N Roy also published regularly articles on India in the Comintern organ International Press Correspondence, ie, Imprecor.

Roy also sent manifestos and statements to the Indian National Congress sessions.  The first one was sent to the Ahmedabad Congress in 1921 and subsequently to the Gaya Congress in 1922 and to the 1923 and 1924 sessions.

M N Roy shifted to Berlin in April 1922 because he found it difficult to reach other regions in India, apart from North India via Central Asia. He sent an emissary, Nalini Dasgupta, in 1921 and 1923 to make contact with the Communist groups that were developing.

As Communist activities increased in India, the Comintern established a Foreign Bureau of the CPI headed by M N Roy, Sipassi and Clemens Dutt to look after affairs in India.  After seeing the repressive policy of the British government to the newly sprung Communist groups and the conspiracy cases, trial and imprisonment of Communist activists, Roy wanted the formation of Workers and Peasants parties which could also cooperate with the Congress nationalist movement. Such Workers and Peasants parties sprang up in Bengal, Bombay, Punjab and later in Uttar Pradesh.

After the Kanpur conspiracy case of 1924, in which Roy himself was indicted, he called for the creation of a ‘Revolutionary Nationalist Party’ with a programme of “national independence, abolition of feudalism and landlordism, nationalisation of land, mines and public utilities and freedom of religion and worship”. 

Till 1926, M N Roy was closely following and involved in various efforts to develop the Communist Party and the Workers and Peasants parties within India. In 1927, the Comintern sent M N Roy as one of its representatives to China, where the revolutionary movement was developing. The brutal suppression of the Communists in Shanghai and Canton by the Kuomintang with whom there was a united front led to a major controversy in the Comintern.

Roy returned to Moscow in September 1927,  but soon fell out of favour with the Comintern leadership. He left for Berlin in 1929 and became associated with the German opposition Communists.  He was expelled from the Comintern in December 1929.

Roy returned to India in 1930 and began working with the Congress party with a group of loyalists known as “Royists”. He was arrested by the British authorities on old cases pending against him.  Put on trial, he was sentenced to 12 years rigorous imprisonment which, on appeal, was reduced to six years.  He came out of jail in 1936.

The Royists, who worked in trade unions and other political activities, were bitterly anti-Communist. M N Roy was pitted against the CPI, though he never denounced the Soviet Union and actually supported the Stalin led war effort to defeat fascism. In 1943, he renounced Marxism and adopted a new creed, ‘Radical Humanism’.

Though he ended up abandoning Marxism, the pioneering contributions of M N Roy in developing the Communist movement in India between 1921 to 1926, cannot be forgotten.