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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday/  Stalin’s young man: M.N. Roy and the Russian Revolution

Stalin’s young man: M.N. Roy and the Russian Revolution

A century after the Russian Revolution, we look at back at those tumultuous events through the eyes of M.N. Roy, a remarkable Indian witness to the making of an epoch

The high point in M.N. Roy’s turbulent political life was when he rubbed shoulders with the most important leaders of the international communist movement. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPremium
The high point in M.N. Roy’s turbulent political life was when he rubbed shoulders with the most important leaders of the international communist movement. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Few Indian political leaders had as eventful a life as M.N. Roy did. He plunged into the nationalist movement after the partition of Bengal in 1905. His early idols were the Bengali revolutionaries as well as the fiery Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Roy left India in 1915 to acquire weapons for the fight against the British. The months he spent in the US radicalized him, and Roy improbably became one of the founders of the Mexican Communist Party.

Roy later rose to the highest levels of the international communist movement, before he parted ways. He returned to India only to be sent to jail for six years by the colonial government. One result of these years of incarceration was a comprehensive critique of Marxism.

Roy would later be the guiding light of the radical humanist movement. Among its core beliefs was that freedom is for individuals rather than collectives, social progress should be measured by the amount of freedom every individual has, human beings are innately rational, philosophy should be rooted in science rather than in religion, political change has to be preceded by a cultural renaissance and that decentralized democracy without political parties is the best way to organize political life.

His most celebrated books include Science and Philosophy, New Humanism: A Manifesto and Reason, Romanticism and Revolution. A more detailed look at Royist philosophy is available at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy here.

Roy, who died in 1954, is now a forgotten man, though some of his ideas found echoes in the total revolution movement launched by Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1970s. The high point in Roy’s turbulent political life was when he rubbed shoulders with the most important leaders of the international communist movement.

Here, we present extracts from his memoirs of his days in Russia soon after the October Revolution, which took place 100 years ago this week. These extracts include his first impressions of Moscow, pen portraits of Lenin and Stalin, the abortive effort of getting radical Indian nationalists to work with the communists and his plan to build an army for the liberation of India.


First day in Moscow

It was about noon when the train reached our destination. Lomonosov looked at his watch and declared that it was exactly on time. The railway system of Russia had been very badly dislocated by the civil war. It was years before regular train service was restored, and trains ran according to any time-table. In 1920, the entire railway system was still reserved for military transport. There was no private passenger traffic. None could simply go to a station, buy a ticket and board a train to travel. The Revolution had abolished money; consequently, there was no distinction between the rich and the poor.

Only pass-holders could use the railway for travel on official business. In order to get a meal in a restaurant or a pair of boots in a shop or board a tram-car in the city, one must produce the certificate of labour. Public life was governed by the principle of revolutionary social justice: “No work, no bread."

While leading us out of the station, Lomonosov apologised that it would take years to run a regular train service on all the lines, and proudly reminded us that Russia had the second largest railway mileage in the world. But one thing had been already achieved: on the line connecting the two capitals, no less than three trains were run daily, and they all kept the time. He added in a whisper that the second important man of the country travelled three times a week in the train which had brought us. But our privilege did not go to the extent of travelling in the same train with him. No private person was allowed to do so.

I learned later that the awe-struck reference was to Zinoviev, who travelled between the two capitals three times a week because he was President of the Leningrad Soviet, Member of the all-powerful Political Bureau of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Communist International. A man who wore the imposing triple crown (none else had the distinction) was naturally regarded as the most important person next only to Lenin.

The political capital of the Republic had been shifted to Moscow, because Leningrad was exposed to the danger of invasion. A powerful German army was still entrenched in Finland, just across the frontier, only at a distance of a few miles. The White Army of the Tzarist General Yudenitch, backed by the German Baltic Army and encouraged by the Entente Powers, had reached the southern suburb of the city in the summer of 1919. Situated deep in the heart of the country, Moscow could not be so threatened. But being traditionally the centre of feudal power and reaction, its social and cultural atmosphere was hardly congenial for the rise of new revolutionary institutions. The medieval walled city of the Kremlin was the most incongruous seat for the headquarters of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic.

Leningrad, on the contrary, was a modern city with an industrial periphery which was the social base of the revolution. The revolution began there and spread to the rest of the country. Not only was the Petrograd proletariat the first to capture power, they also defended the new revolutionary government with their lives. Therefore, the Soviet and the Party organisation of Leningrad were given the pride of place in the revolutionary State, and dominated the political life of the Republic.


The vast open space in front of the station was crowded with men in uniform; rickety carriages pulled by emaciated horses lurched on the cobblestones at the risk of being smashed by motor cars which defied all usual traffic regulations. The recklessness was all the more remarkable because the madly dashing cars were all occupied by military men. I suppose the recklessness demonstrated the feeling of power which, as I lived to learn, bred callousness to other people’s lives. I was jolted out of a daze caused by the impact of first impressions, expected and unexpected, when a large black limousine stopped in front of us. The driver was in a soldier’s uniform.

Lomonosov opened the door for Madame Sadoul to get in. Schlipkin gave him an address and the car moved on. We followed in another with the hood down. In the front seat by the driver sat a grim-faced soldier holding a gun in his hand. The heavy car bounced and rattled as it dashed on the cobbled road at a high speed. The streets looked deserted because all the shop windows were boarded up. Nobody seemed to loiter; all the passers-by looked purposeful.

Presently, we crossed an iron bridge on a rather narrow stream. It was the Moscow River. Driving along the river for a short distance our car swung through the iron gate into the spacious compound of what looked like a large private house. Borodin came out in the portico and led me up the magnificent wooden stair into a suite of rooms which simply took my breath away. It was not a palace; but who lived in the regal comfort and luxury of the gorgeous mansion? Borodin answered my unspoken question. In the old days, it had been the town residence of Count Gutchkov. A nobleman taken to business, he had a large share in the beet sugar industry and was known as the “Sugar King" of Russia. The revolution having abolished private property, the “Gutchkov Mansion" belonged to the State; the ground-floor was the private residence of Karakhan, Vice-Commissar of Foreign Affairs. The upper-storey was reserved for distinguished State guests. Before I could ask more questions which were rushing to my mind, Borodin conducted me to a tall window and pushed aside the thick pink satin curtain.

The Moskwa was flowing in front of the house; along the other bank there ran a high wall behind which, in a forest of proud minarets and high church steeples, several huge golden domes glistened in the afternoon sun. That was the Kremlin. It was built several hundred years ago as a castle, but large enough to be a walled city within a much larger fortified city. So, I was in Moscow, and living right under the wall of the Kremlin.

Borodin was occupying the adjacent suite. He withdrew so that I could get ready for dinner, which was served at 5 P.M., after office hours. In the evening, I was to meet Karakhan, who was my host. The dinner was a striking contrast to the house. Served on a magnificent table in a spacious room, whose high walls were panelled with reddish brown wood, the meal consisted of cabbage soup, a slice of black bread and kasha fa kind of very dark grain, broken and cooked), Borodin informed me with grim humour that the last dish was a luxury, and the tiny bit of meat in the soup was not always available.

That was the standard meal served in all government establishments. Equality had been attained, though on a very low level, but now that the civil war was practically over, the level would rise. Compared with the conditions in the previous winter, when counterrevolutionary armies were marching on Moscow from all sides, the situation had improved considerably. In addition to the scarcity of food, there was an extreme shortage of fuel, and the temperature was far below the freezing point. Some peasants took pity, and came to the gates of the Kremlin with a cartload of wood for Lenin. The hardships experienced in Moscow were mainly due to the resistance to war communism in the countryside. The entire surplus produce of nationalised land was claimed as the share of the State. The peasants simply would not produce more than they needed for subsistence. The result was scarcity and starvation in the urban areas. Moscow with its inflated population was the worst sufferer.


First meeting with Lenin

The entrance to the office of the President of the Council of People’s Commissars was guarded by an army of secretaries headed by an oldish woman. Unassuming in behaviour, plain in looks and rather shabbily attired, she was evidently efficient with her unobtrusive authority. Pindrop silence reigned in the large room occupied by Lenin’s personal Secretariat, which was composed of about a dozen people. The grey-haired chief moved silently from one desk to another whenever she wanted to speak to any of her subordinate colleagues. They all spoke in the lowest possible whisper. None but the chief was privileged to enter Lenin’s office. No ordinary person could occupy the position of great trust. The quiet and rather colourless Saint Peter of the Bolshevik heaven was a senior member of the party, a well known figure in Moscow, and respected by all.

The way to Lenin’s Secretariat lay through a well appointed ante-room which was always empty. No expectant visitor was ever kept waiting there. Lenin did not share the proverbial Russian disregard for time, which is a national characteristic the Bolsheviks had inherited. Punctuality seemed to be blacklisted as an abominable petit-bourgeois prejudice. The disregard for time was the greater the more eminent was the leader. It was justified by his manifold duties and engagements. Zinoviev beat all records. There was occasions when he kept sessions of a Congress of the Communist International or meetings of its Executive Committee waiting for hours.

Lenin was the only exception. As regards the attitude towards time, he was most un-Russian. That explained the emptiness of the ante-room of a man who received numerous callers every day. Generally, interviews were brief, often allotted unusual fractions of time, such as nine or thirteen minutes, and the limitation of time was rigidly enforced. A couple of minutes before a particular interview was due to end, Comrade Maria (the head of Secretariat) pressed a button and a small electric bulb flashed on Lenin’s desk. But the latter was not given any chance to risk his reputation for punctuality. Having given the signal, Comrade Maria would usher in the next caller; if there was none to follow immediately, she would herself appear with some paper and lay it in front of Lenin. In the inner circle, it was said in joke that Comrade Maria treated Ilyitch like a school boy.

Passing through the empty ante-room, I was escorted into the Secretariat. Engrossed in their respective preoccupation, the inmates took no notice of me. But St. Peter of the Bolshevik, heaven was always on the alert. She stood up, looked at the big clock on the wall, and silently came forward to take over the charge from the subordinate colleague who had escorted from the entrance of the palace. She conducted me towards a tall silver and gold door, pushed it open gently, just enough for one to pass, and with a motion of the head bade me enter. I stepped in, and the door silently closed behind me.

It was a vast rectangular room, with a row of tall windows giving on a spacious courtyard surrounded by other wings of the palace, The ceiling was so high as almost to touch the sky. The room was practically bare; only the floor was covered with a thick carpet. My attention was immediately attracted by the bald dome of a head stooping very low on the top of a big desk placed right in the middle of the room. I was nervous and walked towards the desk, not knowing what else to do. By silencing my footsteps, the thick carpet sympathized with my anxiety not to cause the least disturbance. It was quite a distance, from the door to the desk. Before I had covered hardly half of it, the owner of the remarkable head was on his feet and briskly came forward with the right hand extended. I was in the presence of Lenin.

Nearly a head shorter, he tilted his red goatee almost to a horizontal position to look at my face quizzically. I was embarrassed, did not know what to say. He helped me out with a banter: “You are so young! I expected a grey-bearded wise man from the East." The ice of initial nervousness broken, I found words to protest against the disparagement of my seven and twenty years.

Lenin laughed, obviously to put an awe-struck worshipper at ease. Though much too overwhelmed by the experience of a great event to observe details, I was struck by the impish look which often relieved the severity of the expression of a fanatic. It belied the widely held view that in Lenin’s personality the heart was choked in the iron grip of a hard head; that the great revolutionary was a willful machine without the least touch of humanness. The impish smile did not betray cynicism. Lenin was the most unmitigated optimist. Not only was he convinced unshakably that Marxism was the final truth, but he believed equally firmly in its inevitable triumph. He combined the fervor of the prophet with the devotion of the evangelist. Otherwise, he could not advocate capture of power, single handed, as against the stubborn opposition of all his followers, when there appeared to be very little chance for the Bolsheviks to hold it longer than a few days or weeks. At that juncture, Lenin was guided more by faith than by reason; and it was faith not in the secular Providence of historical determinism, but in man’s unlimited capacity to make history. In the most crucial moment of his life and also of contemporary history, Lenin acted as a romanticist; and that one act of extraordinary audacity raised him to the pinnacle of greatness, and won for him a place amongst the immortals of human history.

Danton and Lenin are the two greatest revolutionaries of modern times, and Danton was also a romanticist. The soul of the Great French Revolution was killed when jealousy of the hypocritical High-Priest of Reason sent Danton to the guillotine. Like his great predecessor, Lenin also had the audacity to call for moderation before the cup was drained to the dregs, before it was too late. He had no rival, though Trotsky might pretend to imitate Robespierre’s fanaticism after Lenin’s death, if he had the chance. Therefore, had not the cruel hand of a natural death removed him prematurely Lenin might have turned the course of the revolution to a more fruitful direction. The New Economic Policy was the signal. Its unfoldment might have headed off the subsequent relapse into terrorism and coercion, which destroyed the utopian ideal of Communism. But Trotsky’s Left opposition compelled Stalin to kill the Dantonist spirit of Lenin. The two contenders for the succession to Lenin together did for the Russian Revolution what Robespierre had done for the French.

These ideas about Lenin’s personality and his place in the history of revolution took shape in my mind gradually, years after I met him for the first time. But their roots can be traced to the initial impression. The man whose ominous shadow was cast athwart the capitalist world, in reality, did not at all live up to his frightful reputation. The crown of dictatorial power sat on his head very lightly. There was nothing of a dictator in his physical bearing or manner of speaking. Nor was his remarkable modesty an affectation — a repulsive demonstration of the consciousness of superiority. He was frank in speech and friendly in behavior. For years he had been the undisputed leader of the Bolshevik Party. More than once, a majority of the Central Committee of the party disagreed with him. But none ever dreamed of replacing him as the leader of the party. He was more than a leader, he was the preceptor — High Priest of Bolshevism. He was friend and philosopher for the old cadre of the party. They loved him.

Since the early years of his political career, Lenin had fought bitter factional fights inside the Russian Social-Democratic Party and the Second International. His polemics against the right-wing leaders were charged with brimstone and fire. He expounded the dangerous theory that the party of the proletariat must be an iron cohort of professional revolutionaries. But his behaviour inside the Bolshevik Party was always democratic. Whenever he failed to persuade the Central Committee to agree with his view, he referred the issue to the rank and file of the party, and in those days, there was no bureaucratic machinery to manipulate the party and manufacture a rank and file endorsement for the opinion of the leader. In July 1917, a majority of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party rejected Lenin’s proposal that it should call for an armed insurrection preparatory to capturing power. He returned to his place of hiding in Finland, and wrote a series of articles in the party organ, Pravda, expounding his thesis. Within a couple of months the All-Russian Soviet of Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Deputies met to issue the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!"

In discussions inside the party, Lenin used to drive his point home with picturesque arguments. He backed up his view that the new-born Soviet Government should sign the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the argument that the soldiers had voted for peace with their feet. How? By running away from the fronts. While defending the New Economic Policy in the All-Russian Congress of Soviet, he pleaded: “We must now learn the housekeeping of the Revolution." Expounding in the Second World Congress his thesis that the movement for the liberation of the colonial peoples was a revolutionary force, he warned: “But don’t paint Nationalism red."

Having helped me out of the initial embarrassment and nervousness, Lenin returned to his seat at the desk and asked me to take a chair across it. As he turned back to walk to his seat, I had good glance at the man. I had by then recovered my wits and poise. The height of the room accentuated the shortness of the man, so much so that he looked almost like a dwarf. His big head was quite appropriate to the deceptive picture. The picture was deceptive because Lenin was not a dwarf, being well above five feet. He was 5 ft. 4 inches, I believe. Another habit made him look shorter than he really was. He walked with a stoop, without turning the head either in the left or to the right; nor did he raise his eyes to see that was ahead. The posture suggested that he was engrossed in thought even when walking; and the quickness of his steps seemed to synchronise with the swift rhythm of his mind. He seemed to be always in a great hurry as if keenly conscious of the magnitude of his mission and the inadequacy of time at his disposal. One may wonder if he had a premonition of early death. He was so very impatient to get things done quickly that he restricted the freedom of the tongues of the members of the all-powerful Politbureau. In his time, it had only seven members. In its weekly meetings, none was allowed to speak more than twice, fifteen minutes for the first time and five for the second. Though he thought quickly, his speech was deliberate and sometimes even slow. Except when addressing the masses, he spoke like a teacher lecturing in the class room or an advocate arguing a case in the law court.

Having resumed his seat, Lenin leaned forward on the desk and fixed his almond-shaped twinkling eyes on my face. The impish smile lit up his face, I felt completely at ease, as if I was accustomed to sitting by the desk, not in the presence of a great man, a powerful dictator, but in the pleasant company of an old friend. Indeed it might be that of a benevolent father smiling benignly on a son who has made good and promises to do better. The remembrance of Balabanova’s congratulation made me somewhat dizzy, but her motherly admonition was also fresh in my memory.

Lenin’s voice disturbed my introspection. Borodin had reported my activities in Mexico. I must give a more detailed account. It was a highly interesting experiment in revolutionary strategy. Surely I was reluctant to leave the work so well begun. But there were more urgent revolutionary tasks which must have priority. It would be long before revolutions could succeed in the New World. Conditions might mature in Mexico and other Latin American countries in the near future. But American Imperialism was on the alert to intervene as it had done in the past. We must for the present concentrate on the old world; and the oppressed and exploited masses of Asia have to be mobilized in a gigantic revolutionary movement. My experience in Mexico was extremely valuable for the purpose. In practice, I had anticipated the theory of revolutionary strategy in colonial and semi-colonial countries outlined in the draft theses for the Second World Congress. Had I read them? No, I apologized. Because the documents was given to me just before I was to see its author; but I would study it as soon as I had the time. Then we must meet again to discuss it. Lenin added, and proceeded to plead his ignorance of the conditions in the colonial countries. Therefore he needed my cooperation in the preparation of a document which was destined to be a landmark in the history of the revolutionary movement. My understanding of Marxism was sure to throw a new light on the history and the present conditions of the colonial countries.

The little electric bulb gave the signal — Lenin sat back and remarked that the interview must end on Maria’s order. The impish smile returned in his eyes. I got up to say good-bye, and found Lenin by my side. Taking me by the arm, he conducted me towards the door which opened to let in a man with a shock of black hair, a sensitive face and a little paunch. He was dressed in baggy trousers and a soft white shirt, its collar held together with a black silk string instead of a necktie. He was carrying a bulging leather portfolio under one arm. Lenin introduced me to the newcomer. It was Comrade Zinoviev, who took my hand in a limp grip. His was small and soft like a woman’s. He spoke a few words in a high pitched voice and desired me to see him soon.

Outside in the Secretariat, a young man was standing guard on three big suitcases, each of which contained, as I learned later, important papers pertaining to one of the three high offices held by Zinoviev.


Indian revolutionaries in Moscow

Several Indian revolutionaries had arrived from Berlin as representatives of the defunct Indian Revolutionary Committee. On my way to Moscow, I had pleaded with the leading Indian revolutionaries in Berlin to proceed to Russia, which at that time offered them the only safe asylum and promised to be a reliable base for work to promote revolution in India. At that time, they did not seem to believe that the Russian Revolution would last; and Communism did not find favour with them. So, when at last they changed their mind and turned towards the base of world revolution, I was naturally very glad. But to my great surprise, the few representatives of the Berlin Revolutionary Committee who had already reached Moscow were rather cool in their response to my friendly attitude. However, I learned from them that they had come only as a vanguard of the Revolutionary Committee, which would before long reach Moscow in full force. I hoped that on the arrival of veteran revolutionaries like Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Bhupendranath Dutta and others, the relation would change. I eagerly looked out for the arrival of men who with their revolutionary devotion and long experience could be expected to be good comrades and willing collaborators.

Within a short time, they all arrived to announce that the Indian Revolutionary Committee of Berlin, which alone had the authority to speak in behalf of India, had decided to shift its headquarters to Moscow, if favourable conditions were offered. Although the declaration insinuated that I had no right to speak in behalf of India, I made no secret that the plan of the Indian revolutionaries shifting their headquarters to Moscow would have my fullest support; and there could be no doubt that nowhere in the world could better conditions be obtained than in Moscow. But curiously enough, the newcomers not only tried to avoid me, but some of them actually took up an openly hostile attitude.

The Indian Revolutionary Committee of Berlin was then a thing of the past. Irrespective of whatever might have been its achievements in the earlier days, during the closing years of the war it was a divided house and had practically disintegrated. Instead of working on the authority of that legend, it would have been wiser to have made a new beginning under different circumstances.

But it seems that the news of the formation of the emigrant Indian Communist Party at Tashkent had frightened the old nationalist revolutionaries, who regarded the new body as a challenge to their authority. If I had had the opportunity to meet the leaders of the delegation from Berlin, I could have explained the situation to their satisfaction. I did not approve of the formation of the emigrant Communist Party, and I did not believe that it had any right to speak on behalf of the workers of India, not to mention the Indian people as a whole.

The delegation of Indian revolutionaries from Berlin was composed of fourteen people, including Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, Bhupendranath Dutta, Virendranath Das Gupta, the Maharashtrian Khankhoje, Gulam Ambia Khan Luhani, Nalini Gupta. The driving force of the delegation however was Agnes Smedley, an American by birth. I had met her in America. Then she was an anarchist-pacifist. Working as private Secretary of Lajpatrai for some time, she seemed to have developed a great sympathy for India. Having learned that famous Indian revolutionaries were living in Berlin, at the conclusion of the War she came over there and became a very active member of the Indian group.

But the delegation which came to Moscow was evidently not the original Indian Revolutionary Committee of Berlin. Hardayal and Chattopadhyaya had been the two dominant figures of the Berlin Committee and as such they had clashed before long. No less ardently anti-British, Hardayal however was taken prisoner in Germany and detained on the suspicion of enemy espionage. When Germany surrendered, he escaped to Stockholm and wrote a book describing his experiences in Germany. Evidently, the experience had embittered him. He appeared to be an apologist of the British rule in India and advocated Dominion Status as against complete independence.


When in 1919 I reached Berlin, Bhupendranath Dutta was the only original member of the war-time Indian Revolutionary Committee living there.

All the others had dispersed. Virendranath Chattopadhyaya himself had gone to Stockholm to plead the case of India’s independence in the International Socialist Conference there. Feeling that the Indian revolutionaries from Berlin were not very kindly disposed towards me, I left them alone so as to obviate the impression that I was trying to influence them or to stand in the way of whatever plan they might have had. But I could not help being puzzled and pained when most of them would not even speak to me. It seemed they had the entirely groundless misgiving that I might stand in their way to seeing various Russian leaders and plead their case.


Then they demanded an interview with Lenin himself. They made a great secret of the move, most probably believing that I might stand in their way. But I got the news from Lenin himself. He telephoned to me and asked me to come and see him. He enquired about the Indian revolutionaries who had come to Moscow, and if it was necessary for him to see them. If they had come to discuss any plan of revolutionary work in India, they should address themselves to the Communist International. Lenin was surprised to hear that the Indian revolutionaries were not at all well disposed towards me.

Nevertheless, I suggested that he should see them and hear what they had to say. Lenin remarked that I was in a minority of one against fourteen. I replied that he knew that I did not claim to represent anybody but myself. So, as far as I was concerned, there was no conflict between the Indian revolutionaries and myself.

Lenin enquired if I had discussed matters with them, and was surprised to hear that they would not even speak to me. Evidently in exasperation he sat back in his chair and said: “Well, select three of them to come and see me." I told him that I could not do that, he would have to contact them directly.

In the next days there was a great flutter in the Indian delegation. Lenin had agreed to grant an interview. The Indian revolutionaries had been informed that Lenin would receive three of their representatives chosen by themselves. There were differences as regards the choice. Everybody considered himself to be more entitled to the honour and privilege than the others. I could get all this information through Nalini Gupta, the only one who did not share the general hostile attitude towards me. He was also the only one among the Indian revolutionaries in Europe who maintained some connection with the revolutionary organisations in India by frequently travelling back and forth secretly. He had met some of my friends in India and learned from them about the mission with which J had gone abroad in the beginning of the War. During his last visit to India shortly before he came to Moscow, he was instructed to contact me. So from the very beginning my relation with him was of mutual trust and confidence. He gave me the information that, although among the Indian revolutionaries there was a dispute about the selection of the three to see Lenin, there was a general agreement about the case which was to be presented on that occasion. A long thesis was being prepared under the guidance of Chattopadhyaya and Agnes Smedley to contradict my thesis adopted by the Second World Congress of the Communist International the year before. Luhani, a North-Bengal Muslim, who had come to Britain to study law, was a clever man and an accomplished speaker. But not being one of the senior members of the Berlin group, he was not chosen as one of the representatives to see Lenin. The thesis to be presented by the representatives, however, was drafted by him. The others could not prepare a well-argued document.

Agnes Smedley, backed by Chattopadhyaya, wanted to be one of the representatives to see Lenin. Her claim was opposed by all the rest of the Indians. Finally, Chatto and Dutta, as the senior-most members, were chosen by general consent. I have forgotten who was the third one; most probably it was Khankhoje, who was chosen to obviate the allegation that the delegation was purely Bengali.

Having given them a polite and patient hearing, Lenin advised the representatives of the Indian revolutionaries to see the Secretary of the Communist International, and remarked that the Soviet Government could not actively take part in any plan for promoting revolution in other countries. The Indian revolutionary representatives returned from the coveted interview thoroughly disappointed and even angry. Dutta blurted out that Indian revolutionaries could expect no help from the Bolsheviks because they were eager to make peace with British Imperialism.


First meeting with Stalin

“So, you do not see the revolutionary significance of Pan-Islamism?" I was staggered by the directness of the question. On my protesting that I had not come to discuss politics with a dangerously sick man who was to undergo a major surgical operation the next day, he laughed and reverted to the point. I enquired how he knew of my opinion about Pan-Islamism. “From Ilyitch" (amongst his close associates, Lenin was so referred to). I had discussed the Khilafat movement with Lenin on my return from Central Asia; he referred me to Stalin, and evidently had informed the latter of my opinion. But in the first meeting with Stalin, I avoided joining issues. My object was to get a first hand measure of the man. After fifteen or twenty minutes, the general exchange of views was interrupted by a secretary who entered the room to deliver a message from the Chief Surgeon of the Kremlin Hospital. The message was that, preparatory to the operation the next morning, the patient should take no food in the evening. Why? The telephone receiver was handed over to the patient and he whispered in it a couple of sentences in a tone that commanded obedience. Borodin made a sign: we must go, Comrade Stalin required rest. The latter sat up to shake hands and with the peculiar Stalin grin said: “We must meet again as soon as this operation business is over."

Once we were outside, Borodin asked if I had understood what Stalin had said on the telephone. I had not. The Chief Surgeon of the Kremlin at the other end had explained that the stomach of the patient must be empty when anaesthetics would be given for the operation the next morning. The patient ruled: “No anaesthetics for me; I must be conscious when my abdomen will be opened to see how it looks inside. A major intestinal operation was thus performed with local anaesthesia. It was such a serious case as to occasion doubts about the patient surviving it.

When I saw him for the second time, he had completely recovered his robust health. I faced the memorable figure in the uniform of the Red Army soldiers, a cheerful grin on the pock-marked face, smoking a pipe which he filled with several cigarettes crushed, tobacco as well as the paper. In the long Red Army soldier’s coat and with the star-marked peaked cap on, he looked taller than his five feet six inches.

He frankly conceded that I was right when I had differed with the Russian members of the Turk-Bureau of the Comintern on the role of Pan-Islamism. With a grin, he added that Ilyitch was also of that opinion; had he not accepted my supplement to his Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions? The nationalist movement in the colonial countries, even in India, was politically immature. It had no revolutionary ideology. No use trying to help it with arms and money. It must be strengthened by a well-trained revolutionary cadre. The Communist University for the Toilers of the East was to be founded to serve that purpose.

I could immediately see the significance of the name chosen for the proposed training centre. It indicated that my point of view about the social basis of the revolutionary movement in the colonial countries had been tacitly accepted. The revolutionary cadre of the anti-imperialist movement for national liberation would come from the toiling masses. My contention, when I disagreed with Lenin at the Second World Congress was that, if the nationalist movement succeeded under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, it would only mean transfer of power to the native ruling class; there would be no social revolution.

This view was not formally endorsed by the Communist International until the Fourth World Congress in 1923. But the interview with Stalin gave me the confidence that I was right, and opinion in the higher circles of the Bolshevik Party was moving towards my position.

From the amused expression on Stalin’s face I could gather that he knew what was going on in my mind. That was my first experience of the Stalin method of winning the confidence of his closer associates, of such men as did not aspire to outgrow his leadership. The method was the readiness to take over the sounder parts of the point of view of others, amend it without saying so in order not to provoke resistance, and state the result as the generally agreed opinion. I was a novice; so the master took some pains to help me understand his method. His frankness was Machiavellian, Jesuitic, as I realised many years later.

But I would never regret those years of rich experience, without which I might have still remained a naïve revolutionary, burning buses and throwing acid bulbs at tram-cars, treasuring a few pistols to kill a policeman, perchance a Britisher.

Stalin reverted to the issue of Pan-Islamism and our difference about the relation of the Communists with the colonial nationalist movement generally. Marxists did not believe that any people or any religious community as a whole could be revolutionary or otherwise. The law of the class struggle determined that ultimately the nationalist bourgeoisie must turn against the revolution, as soon as it would threaten their class interests. But as long as they led an anti-imperialist movement, they played an objectively revolutionary role, and therefore must be helped. Not only the nationalist bourgeoisie in less backward colonial countries like India and China, but even the feudal landlords, Ulehmas and Mullahs in the Islamic countries must also be helped. That was an elementary principle of the strategy of world revolution.

Having heard Stalin meekly, I dared put in a few words of doubt: How would Communism and the cause of the liberation of the proletariat be helped if the capitalist and feudal upper classes came to power? The modern Machiavelli laid his cards on the table: That should not be allowed; the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry should become the driving force of the national liberation movement, so that, at the proper moment, the revolutionary cadre, organised in the Communist Party, might lead them to transform the national liberation movement into a civil war for the social emancipation of the toiling masses.

Eventually, until my break with the Communist International in 1929, I came to be counted among “Stalin’s young men," although more than once I crossed swords with the Master, not unsuccessfully. His readiness to respect an independent judgment, provided that it did not amount to heresy against the common faith, raised my esteem for him. Even today I believe that but for the intellectual cowardice, the sordid desire to be on the band-wagon and moral sycophancy on the part of his foremost followers in Russia as well as abroad, Stalin’s leadership might not have degenerated into a disgusting cult of hero-worship.


Plan to raise an army of liberation

My plan was not simply to supply the frontier tribes with the sinews of war so that they could make trouble for the British-Indian Government. It would be easy enough to do so; but I was doubtful about the consequences. The war in Europe was over. Before long, the British-Indian army would again be available for the defence of the North-Western Frontier. One could not be sure about the result of another frontier war.

Supposing that with Russian help the tribesmen gained the upper hand, the repercussion in India might reinforce the position of the British. Victorious tribesmen would almost certainly raid the neighbouring Indian towns and villages, as they had done on previous occasions. Magnified reports would spread like wild fire throughout the country, creating panic. Frightened by the spectre of a new Muslim invasion, the Hindu majority of the Indian population would look upon the British power as the only protection. Consequently, the anti-British movement would receive a setback. The alternative result of the panic might be countrywide communal riots. If the weakened political regime failed to cope with the situation, chaos would be let loose. Because there was no purposefully organised force to seize power, it would be difficult to restore order and build up a democratic regime.

A new factor had appeared on the scene, which was included in my plan. Reports had reached Moscow that, responding to a call of the Khilafat Committee, thousands of Muslims, including many educated young men, were leaving India for Turkey to join the army of Kemal Pasha. It was a religious Pan-Islamist movement. But it gave me an opportunity to contact a large number of possible recruits for an army to fight for the liberation of India instead of a lost cause.

Kemal Pasha was waging a war neither for the restoration of the Ottoman Empire, nor for the defence of the Khilafat. The abolition of the Turkish Sultanate had put an end to the revered institution of the Islamic Khilafat. The Indian Muslims, therefore, were fighting for a lost cause. The ignorant masses were moved by religious fanaticism. But the educated youth, who constituted the driving force of the movement, were politically motivated. For them the Khilafat was a traditional symbol of Islamic unity. The disappearance of the symbol was sure to disrupt the Pan-Islamist movement, at least blunt the edge of its fanaticism.

On the rebound, the educated amongst the Indian Mujaheers might realise the pointlessness of a pilgrimage to Turkey to fight for the cause of secular nationalism. Then it should be possible to enlist them in an army of Indian liberation. My plan was to raise, equip and train such an army in Afghanistan. Using the frontier territories as the base of operation and with the mercenary support of the tribesmen, the liberation army would march into India and occupy some territory where a civil government should be established as soon as possible.

The first proclamation of the revolutionary government would outline a programme of social reform to follow national independence. It would call upon the people to rise in the rear of the enemy, so that the Liberation Army could advance further and further into the country. The appeal should be addressed particularly to the industrial and transport workers. The entire adult population of the liberated territory would be armed, some for defence and others for enlarging the Liberation Army.

The programme of social reform outlined in the proclamation issued on the establishment of the revolutionary government would be enforced in the liberated territories; consequently, the masses would enthusiastically support the new regime. The concrete picture of freedom would have a strong appeal to the vast majority of the people, giving them the incentive to strive for it.

The vested interests throughout the land might be opposed to the revolutionary implications of national liberation; but the imperialist power, weakened by the consequences of the World War, and shaken by a popular uprising, would not be able to offer any protection to the upper-class minority, who would wish to stem the tide of the democratic national revolution.

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Published: 04 Nov 2017, 11:23 PM IST
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