Spartacist English edition No. 62
M.N. Roy: Nationalist Menshevik
In a review enthusing over Charles Wesley Ervin’s Tomorrow Is Ours: The Trotskyist Movement in India and Ceylon, 1935-48, the British journal Revolutionary History takes particular note of Ervin’s “excellent section (pp29-38) on the work of the neglected Indian Marxist, M.N. Roy” (Revolutionary History Vol. 9, No. 4). In fact, Ervin’s treatment of this pseudo-Marxist adventurer, who figured prominently in the Bukharinite Right Opposition from its inception in 1928, is a piece of philistine idolatry fully in line with bourgeois academic studies of Indian Communism, in which Roy is far from neglected. What distinguishes Roy, and makes him attractive to such types, is that he embodied the revisionist endeavour of trying to blend Communism and nationalism. In pursuit of this effort, Roy became a vulgar democrat who pushed the bourgeois ideology of nationalism, albeit with some Communist colouration, making him an opponent of the fight for a Leninist vanguard party based on proletarian internationalism.
Notwithstanding their occasional attempts to dress as “Trotskyists,” the motley crew of Labourite leftists who publish Revolutionary History have long held high the banner of Right Communism in order to alibi the “left wing of the possible.” They dismiss the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as an aberrant historical event—at best, a failed experiment—and provide slick lawyers’ arguments to whitewash the betrayal of revolutionary opportunities elsewhere. To this end, Revolutionary History has embraced Heinrich Brandler, leader of the German Communist Party during the aborted revolution in 1923 and later of the International Right Opposition, and amnestied the Spanish POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) of one-time Left Oppositionist Andrés Nin. Nin’s fusion with the Right Communist Joaquín Maurín to form the centrist POUM in 1935 dealt a death blow to the prospects of forging a Leninist vanguard party in Spain on the eve of the Civil War. (For more on these questions, see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern” and “Trotskyism vs. Popular Frontism in the Spanish Civil War,” Spartacist [English edition] Nos. 56 and 61, Spring 2001 and Spring 2009.)
Ervin’s case for Roy begins with the standard academic/nationalist account that falsely depicts Roy as a left critic of Lenin in the discussion on the national and colonial questions at the 1920 Second Congress of the Communist International (CI). To believe Ervin, Roy was prescient in advocating Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in the colonial East. Ervin asserts that “Roy rejected a ‘Menshevik’ model for India” whereas Lenin, per Ervin, insisted “that the bourgeoisie of Asia still had a revolutionary role to play in world history. As we have seen, that was the conception he had formed in the period before WWI, when he was still a left social democrat” (Tomorrow Is Ours). Ervin continues: “By all accounts Lenin showed a willingness to reconsider some of his assumptions” in light of Roy’s criticisms.
Lenin’s chief aim in regard to the colonial question at the Second Congress was to draw a hard line within the workers movement of the advanced capitalist countries against the social-imperialism of the Second International. As we have noted elsewhere (see “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 53, Summer 1997), the proletarian movement in the colonial world was then new and small; it was not at all clear what role the nascent bourgeoisies would play in the struggle for national liberation nor whether the programme of permanent revolution that had been vindicated in tsarist Russia was applicable in places like China and India. Thus the theses submitted by Lenin dealt with the relationship between the Communist parties and bourgeois-nationalist movements in broad outline. But Lenin’s draft theses, which were approved without any substantive changes, were categorical in their insistence on proletarian class independence, asserting: “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form” (“Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions,” June 1920).
Lenin did accede to Roy in speaking of support to “national-revolutionary” rather than “bourgeois-democratic” movements in the colonies. To Lenin, there was no programmatic or principled distinction here, as “any national movement can only be a bourgeois-democratic movement, since the overwhelming mass of the population in the backward countries consists of peasants who represent bourgeois-capitalist relationships” (“Report of the Commission on the National and the Colonial Questions,” 26 July 1920). So much for Lenin supposedly “reconsidering” his allegedly “left social-democratic” views!
In his effort to bolster Roy’s credentials at Lenin’s expense, Ervin completely disappears the fact that it was Roy who was compelled to “reconsider some of his assumptions” in the course of the discussion. A particular focus of criticism was Roy’s argument that the proletariat of Europe was so corrupted by imperialism that it could not seize power before the colonial revolution. Thus Roy’s draft supplementary theses, written as Germany was in the throes of revolutionary turmoil and proletarian struggles swept Europe, had initially asserted: “Without the breaking up of the colonial empire, the overthrow of the capitalist system in Europe does not appear possible” (Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!—Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 [New York: Pathfinder, 1991]). Notably it was the delegate from the Communist Party of Iran, Ahmed Sultanzadeh, who most forcefully addressed Roy’s prejudices against the West European proletariat in the discussion, stating, “Does that really mean, as Comrade Roy would have us believe, that the fate of communism throughout the world depends on the victory of the social revolution in the Orient? Certainly not” (ibid.). Sultanzadeh added, “The thunder of revolution in the West shook the Orient to the roots, giving strength to revolutionaries in Persia and Turkey” (ibid.). Roy was an early advocate not of permanent revolution but of the Maoist/Guevarist notion of the “Third World” “countryside” surrounding the imperialist “cities.”
Also stricken from Roy’s draft theses, which were adopted by the Congress in heavily amended form, were repeated assertions that the colonial masses were already breaking from the bourgeois nationalists toward revolutionary politics—this at a time when there was not yet even an (ephemeral) émigré group of Indian Communists, which was formed in Soviet Tashkent only some months after the Second Congress. Like many a millenarian newcomer to the Communist movement, Roy failed to fathom the arduous struggle needed to forge a party capable of leading the working masses to power, a lesson Lenin had sought to drive home in “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder, written on the eve of the Congress.
As his pollyannish expectations crashed up against objective reality, Roy went from minimising the hold of bourgeois nationalism over the masses to accommodating to it. Ervin asserts that Roy “was, of course, absolutely right” in arguing at the Fourth CI Congress in November-December 1922 that the colonial bourgeoisie was bound ultimately to become a counterrevolutionary force (Tomorrow Is Ours). Ervin does not, of course, indicate that Roy made this unexceptional observation in the context of unqualified support for the “anti-imperialist united front” adopted at the Fourth Congress, which implicitly posed a Menshevik, two-stage programme for the colonial revolution, with the first stage being a democratic struggle, in a political bloc with bourgeois nationalism, against imperialism. As we observed in “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism,” it was a sharp descent from the opportunist impulses expressed at the Fourth Congress of the revolutionary Comintern to the full-blown catastrophic betrayal of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 carried out by the Comintern of Stalin/Bukharin; in the wake of the political counterrevolution of 1923-24 in the Soviet Union, the CI was progressively transformed from a party of world revolution to an instrument of Stalin’s diplomatic manoeuvres. However, on one significant programmatic question, Roy stood to the right even of the Fourth Congress Theses.
Ervin acknowledges, without explanation, that Roy, “after emphasizing the need to ‘develop our parties in these countries,’ added, rather ambiguously, that only ‘a political party representing the workers and peasants’ could ensure the ‘final victory’” (Tomorrow Is Ours). Ervin continues, “After the Fourth Congress Roy pursued the People’s Party strategy for India” and “was beginning to toy with the idea that other classes could be pressured to start the revolution.” In fact, in the months before the Fourth Congress Roy was already calling for a worker-peasant party in India and amalgamating the interests of the proletariat and the peasantry, writing, for example: “The leadership of the national struggle must be taken over by a mass party consciously representing the interests, immediate as well as ultimate, of the workers and peasants” (“Wanted a New Party,” October 1922, Selected Works of M.N. Roy [Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987]). On this question, Roy truly was prescient, anticipating the line subsequently purveyed by Stalin and Bukharin with disastrous effect.
In his incisive 1928 exposure of the Stalinist degeneration of the Comintern, Trotsky tore apart the anti-Marxist notion of a “two-class” party, writing:
“Marxism has always taught, and Bolshevism, too, accepted, and taught, that the peasantry and proletariat are two different classes, that it is false to identify their interests in capitalist society in any way, and that a peasant can join the communist party only if, from the property standpoint, he adopts the views of the proletariat....
“The celebrated idea of ‘workers’ and peasants’ parties’ seems to have been specially created to camouflage bourgeois parties which are compelled to seek support from the peasantry but who are also ready to absorb workers into their ranks. The Kuomintang has entered the annals of history for all time as a classic type of such a party.”
—The Third International After Lenin (1928)
Under Roy’s guidance, the Communist Party of India (CPI) set out from its inception in December 1925 to build a Peasants’ and Workers’ Party in Bengal. In 1926 Roy insisted that the CPI “is bound to be a small sect without any political influence” unless it itself became a Workers and Peasants Party, arguing that this was the way to gain control over “a large revolutionary element” that was not “ideologically prepared and courageous enough to join openly a Communist Party” (quoted in V.B. Karnik, M.N. Roy: Political Biography [Bombay: Nav Jagriti Samaj, 1978]). Roy’s aim in all this was to capture the bourgeois Indian National Congress and make it a “people’s” or “revolutionary nationalist” party based on a democratic programme of national independence. Historian John Patrick Haithcox writes: “Roy hoped that Indian communists would be able to duplicate the apparent success of their Chinese counterparts in working within the Kuomintang” (Haithcox, Communism and Nationalism in India: M.N. Roy and Comintern Policy, 1920-1939 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971]).
Ervin plays down Roy’s role in promoting two-class parties while giving faint praise to Trotsky for opposing Stalin/Bukharin on this question in 1928. As is typical of the Revolutionary History school, Ervin then cynically chastises Trotsky, citing a 1928 article by Trotsky in which he supposedly “recognized, belatedly, that the Opposition should have fought this line much earlier, during 1923-25, when it was being formulated and implemented experimentally” (Tomorrow Is Ours). What Trotsky recognised in that 1928 article was rather different, to wit: “We underestimated the full depths of the backsliding, expressed as early as 1924-25, in the illiterate slogan of ‘two-class workers’ and peasants’ parties for the East’” (“The Opposition’s Errors—Real and Alleged,” May 1928).
More recently, in a 23 August 2010 letter criticising Workers Vanguard for daring to describe Roy as a “pseudo-Marxist adventurer,” Ervin goes so far as to make Lenin and Trotsky complicit in Roy’s two-class party schema, claiming that “neither Lenin nor Trotsky objected” to Roy’s call for a “people’s party” at the Fourth Congress (see “An Exchange on M.N. Roy,” Workers Vanguard No. 969, 19 November 2010). This is spurious, to say the least. Lenin was already gravely ill by the time of the Fourth Congress and played a very limited role there, but the entire body of Lenin’s works is replete with warnings against confusing the class interests of the proletariat and the peasantry. The same is true for Trotsky.
Ervin to the contrary, Trotsky had fought against the “two-class” party in 1924, when it reared its head on the American terrain. Under the influence of the transplanted Hungarian adventurer John Pepper, the American Communists were supporting the Farmer-Labor Party, which became an electoral vehicle for the presidential campaign of bourgeois “progressive” Robert La Follette. Had Trotsky not waged this fight, leading the Comintern to pull the American party back from supporting La Follette, it would have signified the early shipwreck of American Communism.
As for Roy being a pseudo-Marxist adventurer, it is worth noting that he attended the Second CI Congress in 1920 as a delegate of the Communist Party of Mexico (CPM), whose “founding conference” in late 1919 consisted of at most seven people: Roy, his wife and several cronies. Roy later admitted that before “founding” the new party he sought the consent of Mexican president Venustiano Carranza, a hacendado (wealthy landowner), who had sponsored Roy’s “Socialist Party.” Roy explains that it was necessary “to reassure the Government and the numerous ‘fellow travelers’ of revolutionary Socialism that the flamboyant resolutions of the [founding] conference did not really mark a break with the past,” adding: “The Communist Party remained committed to the revolutionary democratic [i.e., bourgeois] programme of the defunct Socialist Party” (M.N. Roy’s Memoirs [Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Ltd., 1964]).
Roy also confesses that less than a month before founding the CPM, he had served as a strikebreaking adviser to the Mexican minister of labour. And before that, Roy was living off funds he had raised from the German embassy, ostensibly to buy arms for Indian nationalists, as well as from the Carranza regime. Roy’s scheme to found a “Communist Party,” which likewise failed to distinguish between the proletariat and the peasantry, was hatched in league with Mikhail Borodin, who was then visiting Mexico and later worked with Roy in helping to subordinate the Chinese proletariat to the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang.
Indeed, Roy played a key role in implementing Stalin/Bukharin’s liquidationist policies on the ground in China. Their “democratic,” “anti-imperialist” stage ended in the April 1927 slaughter of thousands of Communists and other workers in Shanghai by Guomindang leader Chiang Kai-shek, whom Stalin had made an honourary member of the Comintern Executive, no less. Shortly thereafter, Trotsky wrote of Roy:
“It is doubtful if greater harm could be done to the Indian proletariat than was done by Zinoviev, Stalin and Bukharin through the medium of Roy. In India, as in China, the work has been and is oriented almost totally toward bourgeois nationalism. In the whole period since Lenin, Roy has conducted propaganda in favor of a ‘people’s party’ which, as he himself has said, should be ‘neither in name nor in essence’ the party of the proletarian vanguard. This is an adaptation of Kuomintangism, of Stalinism, and of La Follettism to the conditions of the national movement in India. Politically this means: through the medium of Roy, the leadership of the International is holding the stirrup for the future Indian Chiang Kai-sheks. As for Roy’s conceptions, they are a hodgepodge of Social Revolutionary ideas and liberalism flavored with the sauce of the struggle against imperialism.... It is not necessary to say that this national democrat, poisoned by an adulterated ‘Marxism,’ is an implacable foe of ‘Trotskyism’.”
—“Who Is Leading the Comintern Today?”
When Stalin launched the Comintern on its “third period” left turn, Bukharin and Roy opposed Stalin from the right. Bukharin soon capitulated to Stalin; Roy was expelled from the CI in September 1929. Having learned nothing from the debacle in China, upon his return to India in December 1930 Roy made it his task to subordinate the proletariat to the bourgeois Congress of Mahatma Gandhi. To this end, Roy and his group acted as a cat’s-paw for the nationalists in driving the Communists out of the leadership of the All-India Trade Union Congress (AITUC). Intoxicated by “third period” sectarianism, after losing control of AITUC the CPI facilitated the Royist-led anti-Communist purge by splitting from AITUC to form a separate Red Trade Union Congress.
In the following years, Roy was to demonstrate his fealty to the bourgeois nationalists time and again. In mid 1934, when the Communists called to transform a militant textile strike centred in Bombay into a countrywide general strike, Roy’s followers opposed this and instead sought, unsuccessfully, to end the strike. A year later, the Royists denounced the CPI’s efforts to build trade unions, peasant leagues and youth organisations outside the Congress fold, declaring this to be an attack on the unity of Congress as the sole “organization of national revolutionary struggle” (quoted in Communism and Nationalism in India).
Roy had hoped that following the 1935 Seventh CI Congress, which proclaimed the “people’s front” line, his consistent rightism would regain him Stalin’s favour as against the CPI. Stalin was not so forgiving. In any case, Roy’s pretensions to Communism were getting pretty threadbare. When he was released from prison in November 1936, after serving more than five years on sedition charges stemming from the early ’20s, he immediately shuttled off to meet with Congress leader Nehru—in an attempt to convince Nehru to soft-pedal his socialist rhetoric. Roy declared in a press interview: “My message to the people is to rally in the millions under the flag of the National Congress and fight for freedom. Socialism or communism is not the issue of the day, and socialists and communists should realize that the immediate objective is national independence” (quoted in ibid.).
Little more than three years later, Roy was urging the Indian masses to rally under the Union Jack of British imperialism. After initially proclaiming a policy of neutrality in World War II, within months Roy was calling for unconditional cooperation with the British war effort. In October 1940, while the Stalinists were temporarily posturing as militantly anti-imperialist under the aegis of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Royists declared Congress membership to be “incompatible with anti-fascist conviction” and split to form the Radical Democratic People’s Party (quoted in ibid.). Roy was not the only alumnus of the Right Opposition to end up as an abject apologist and agent for “democratic” imperialism. In the U.S., Jay Lovestone parlayed his support for the “anti-fascist” war into building up a counterrevolutionary cadre to be deployed by the CIA and the pro-imperialist American labour bureaucracy in the Cold War against Communism beginning in the late 1940s.
The formation of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party (BLPI) in 1942 brought to the Indian proletariat the only voice of revolutionary internationalism. The BLPI called for revolutionary defeatism toward both imperialist camps in the war, while standing for unconditional military defence of the Soviet degenerated workers state. Against the strikebreaking of the Stalinists and Royists, the small forces of Indian Trotskyism did their utmost to mobilise the proletariat on an independent class basis in the struggle for national independence and socialist revolution. In a fitting epitaph for what Revolutionary History describes as “the neglected Indian Marxist, M.N. Roy,” the BLPI wrote in a 1945 statement:
“Stalinism and Royism are at one in their hostility to the mass movement and mass struggle, and in their support of imperialism and the imperialist war. They are also at one in their support of the Soviet bureaucracy—with this difference, however, that while the Stalinists come to their support of imperialism from their support of the Soviet bureaucracy, the Royists come to their support of the Soviet bureaucracy from their support of the imperialists.”
— “For An Anti-Imperialist Left Front: An Appeal
to the Left Forces in the Country,” 20 May 1945