Workers Vanguard No. 969
19 November 2010
An Exchange on M.N. Roy
August 23, 2010
To the editor of Workers Vanguard:
In your article on India, in the July 30th issue of Workers Vanguard [No. 962], you label the pioneer Indian Communist, M.N. Roy, a “pseudo-Marxist adventurer.” That is one-sided, to say the least.
As a young man, Roy joined a group of brave Bengali revolutionaries who were willing to sacrifice their lives to drive the British from India through force of bombs and bullets. Inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, Roy became a Communist and made his way to Moscow in 1920 for the Second Comintern Congress, where he changed Lenin’s thinking in the debate on the national-colonial question. As his contemporary, Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, noted at that time, “Roy had the support of Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Radek.”
Right after the congress, Lenin dispatched his new protege, with two trainloads of weapons, to remote Tashkent, then a dangerous wilderness, to set up a Communist academy to train cadres for future operations inside British India. It was none other than Trotsky, the commander of the Red Army, who had first proposed this “adventure” a year earlier. After his return to Russia, Roy established his credentials as a first-class Marxist theoretician with his book, India in Transition, which Lenin praised as the first Marxist analysis of India.
Having earned the trust and admiration of the top Bolshevik leaders, Roy rose quickly in the Comintern apparatus. He was regarded as a “leftist” in the political spectrum of the Comintern. If you read his writings in the early ’twenties, you’ll be surprised at how “Trotskyist” they sound.
You denounce Roy for advocating the formation of nationalist “Peoples’ Parties” in the colonies in 1926. In fact, Roy first mooted this policy at the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky objected. Roy developed this thesis jointly with Karl Radek, the secretary of the Comintern who was allied with Trotsky.
As your tendency has pointed out before, there were weaknesses in some of the experimental Comintern policies in the early 1920s. The whole motivation and purpose of the “workers-peasants party” changed qualitatively between 1922 and 1927.
Let me remind you what James P. Cannon, the leader of the American Trotskyist party, once said about flippant denunciations of Grigory Zinoviev, the Soviet leader who led the vicious, self-serving demagogic attack on Leon Trotsky after Lenin’s death: “I have always been outraged by the impudent pretensions of so many little people to deprecate Zinoviev, and I feel that he deserves justification before history. I have no doubt whatever that in all his big actions, including his most terrible errors, he was motivated fundamentally by devotion to the higher interests of the working class of the whole world
In spite of all, Zinoviev deserves restoration as one of the great hero-martyrs of the revolution.”
And so does Manabendra Nath Roy.
Charles Wesley Ervin
M.N. Roy, whom Ervin so rhapsodizes, was briefly a prominent figure in the early Communist movement, having been recruited from the Indian nationalist movement. After falling out of favor in the Stalinized Communist International (CI), he aligned himself with the Right Opposition led by Nikolai Bukharin and was expelled from the CI in 1929. (As Leon Trotsky asserted, the victory of the program of the Right Opposition would have led to capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union in short order.) Roy rapidly reverted to his roots by becoming an increasingly open apologist for bourgeois nationalism, notably as an advocate of class collaboration with the bourgeois Indian National Congress, later the Congress Party. Revolutionary Marxists fight for national liberation of the colonies and neocolonies of imperialism, but we do not support nationalism, a bourgeois ideology which is an obstacle to social revolution.
Charles Wesley Ervin is the author of a recent book on the history of Trotskyism in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, Tomorrow Is Ours (2006). Particularly useful from Ervin’s book is the powerful 1942 program of the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India. While Ervin has cast himself as an apologist for Roy, the BLPI (like us) had a few choice words concerning Roy’s pernicious role. Ervin’s own text is also informative. He quotes Roy as coming out for “a political party representing the workers and peasants” at the Fourth CI Congress in 1922. Ervin adds: “After the Fourth Congress Roy pursued the People’s Party strategy for India. He wrote article after article, and ultimately a whole book, on how to transform the Congress [Party] into ‘a democratic party of the people with a programme of Revolutionary Nationalism’.” To be accurate, even prior to the Fourth Congress Roy was already arguing that workers and peasants have the same class interests.
Contrary to Ervin’s imputations, Trotsky from the start gave no quarter to the notion of a revolutionary party simultaneously representing the class interests of workers and peasants, as we will see. The peasantry consists of petty-bourgeois layers; the poor peasants can be won to following the lead of the revolutionary proletariat, but such an outcome is by no means the only possibility. As an intermediate social layer, the peasantry can also support outright reactionary forces, or it can serve as a cover for the interests of the big bourgeoisie itself.
A major factor propelling Trotsky to found the International Left Opposition and later the Fourth International, which carried forward the struggle for the authentic internationalist program of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was the betrayal of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 by Stalin and his allies in the CI. At the core of Stalin’s policy was looking to the Guomindang, the party of the Chinese bourgeoisie, as the leader of the Chinese national revolutionary struggle, and the complete liquidation of the young Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into the Guomindang. The “workers and peasants party” theory blossomed as the “bloc of four classes,” as the Guomindang was dubbed.
Stalin made use of the opportunism and adventurism of his operatives in China, principally Mikhail Borodin and later M.N. Roy. (This of course does not excuse his making his minions scapegoats after the fact.) Thousands of Communists and pro-Communist workers paid with their lives for Stalin’s criminal opportunism. In April 1927, Guomindang head Chiang Kai-shek, turning on his CP allies, carried out a bloody coup in Shanghai, murdering thousands of Communist cadres and trade unionists; the catastrophe was then repeated in other cities. To conceal the hideous results of his policy of liquidating the CCP into the Guomindang, Stalin launched a series of cynical ultraleft, adventurist uprisings in China that added greatly to the death toll of Communist comrades, pro-Communist workers and revolutionary peasants, completing the beheading of the Chinese proletariat.
History’s verdict on the Chinese debacle was rendered by Trotsky in his 1928 critique, “The Draft Program of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals” (printed in The Third International After Lenin). In this crucial indictment of the Stalinized CI, Trotsky quoted from Lenin in 1909 concerning the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs): “The fundamental idea of their program was not at all that ‘an alliance of the forces’ of the proletariat and the peasantry is necessary, but that there is no class abyss between the former and the latter and that there is no need to draw a line of class demarcation between them, and that the social democratic idea of the petty bourgeois nature of the peasantry that distinguishes it from the proletariat is fundamentally false.” Trotsky added:
“In other words, the two-class workers’ and peasants’ party is the central idea of the Russian Narodniks [populists]. Only in the struggle against this idea could the party of the proletarian vanguard in peasant Russia develop. Lenin persistently and untiringly repeated in the epoch of the 1905 revolution that ‘Our attitude towards the peasantry must be distrustful, we must organize separately from it, be ready for a struggle against it, to the extent that the peasantry comes forward as a reactionary or anti-proletarian force’.” [emphasis added by Trotsky]
Trotsky devoted several pages of the section of Third International After Lenin on “Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution” to the nature of the peasantry. Quoting from Lenin against the anti-Bolshevik idea of workers and peasants parties, he concludes: “This idea reappears in hundreds of Lenin’s major and minor works. In 1908, he explained: ‘The alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry must in no case be interpreted to mean a fusion of the different classes or parties of the proletariat and the peasantry’” (emphasis added by Trotsky).
Trotsky wrote in the same work: “In the West the idea of a workers’ and peasants’ party is simply ridiculous. In the East it is fatal. In China, India, and Japan this idea is mortally hostile not only to the hegemony of the proletariat in the revolution but also to the most elementary independence of the proletarian vanguard. The workers’ and peasants’ party can only serve as a base, a screen, and a springboard for the bourgeoisie.”
Summarizing Roy’s role in the Indian communist movement, Trotsky wrote in “Who Is Leading the Comintern Today?” (September 1928):
“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
. Through the medium of Roy, the leadership of the International is holding the stirrup for the future Indian Chiang Kai-sheks.... In India the catastrophe is being prepared just as methodically as it was in China. Roy has taken the Chinese example as a model.”
In an article on “Trotskyism in India” in Revolutionary History (Winter 1988-89), Ervin fantasized, “Had Roy gone over to the Left Opposition, rather than to the Right, the whole story of Indian Trotskyism might have been quite different.” Trotsky offered a rather different judgment on Roy, writing in his September 1928 essay: “It is not necessary to say that this national democrat, poisoned by an adulterated ‘Marxism,’ is an implacable foe of ‘Trotskyism’.”
M.N. Roy’s most lasting contribution to “Communism” was his attempt to reconcile it with bourgeois nationalism. His “non-doctrinaire” approach to communist theory, so admired by many academic pseudo-Marxists today, consisted in pushing proletarian subordination to the bourgeoisie in the colonial world. As noted above, this was anything but a new approach, owing much to the Narodniks and SRs. Its results in China in 1925-27 were horrific and counterrevolutionary. And we also note, with the benefit of more hindsight than Lenin and Trotsky had, that the results of bourgeois nationalism in power in the former colonies in the last half of the 20th century and today have similarly been horrific and counterrevolutionary.
Throughout the Indian subcontinent, from Kashmir to Jaffna, the imperialist-dependent capitalist rulers have built upon the fratricidal divisions inherited from imperialism, promoting social backwardness of every kind and practicing state-sponsored communalist slaughter of minority peoples. Real national and social liberation of the working class and oppressed Third World masses cannot be accomplished under the rule of the neocolonial bourgeoisie, as Trotsky explained in putting forward the program of permanent revolution. The first condition for the proletariat being able to carry out its revolutionary role is the scrupulous safeguarding of its class independence from the bourgeoisie.