How A Bengali Intellectual Became The Founder Of Mexico's Communist Party
“If ever I shall have to live elsewhere, I would return here, to Mexico City.” – MN Roy
My brain lives for the mental stimulation that I get from books about literary and political theory, and philosophy. Everyone in my family knows that – my mother even cribs about why I need to ‘intellectualise everything’ and can’t just enjoy things at face value. So when my father returned from a business trip via Mexico and in passing mentioned a building called MN Roy after a Bengali intellectual, that one of his colleagues pointed out was, in fact, a club, I was so frustrated that he didn’t get me a souvenir of some kind, or even go inside and take a picture. “Do you even know who MN Roy is?” he asked laughing, and sadly, I didn’t.
After countless Google searches, Wikipedia pages and blog posts, I learnt that not only was this exclusive nightclub in Mexico City named after its former resident, but it also happened to be at one point the headquarters of Mexico’s communist party; one which MN Roy was instrumental in founding. But how did a Bengali intellectual end up being a founder of the communist party in Mexico of all places?
Known as the ‘Father of Indian Communism’, Manabendra Nath Roy was born and named Narendra Nath Bhattacharya. Roy started his political journey at an early age and as a militant nationalist. With a heart filled with nationalist fervour, politics and pain for India’s failing struggle against the Colonial powers, Roy was a freethinker who believed the only way to truly free India was through a militant revolt against the British who were at the time preoccupied with the World War. In search of weapons, he left for Java using aliases and fake passports. Roy was already on the British radar and used decoys and falsities to ensure his safe travels.
As a rebellious fugitive, Roy wandered from country to country, across east and southeast Asia in an effort to secure arms for the Indian nationalist movement. It was around July 1916 that Roy reached San Francisco, US, but the news of his arrival was published in a local newspaper and he was soon on the radar of the British intelligence yet again. After waiting for an absconding ship allegedly carrying his weapons, Roy had to accept at this point that his search for arms needed to come to an end. Feeling defeated and disconnected from his nationalist identity, Roy contemplated his position in the political struggle of his homeland. According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it was in the US that he met Lala Lajpat Rai and other American radicals with whom he started spending time with at public meetings, and at the New York library where he began reading into Socialism with the intention of combating it. This was where Roy truly became ‘MN Roy’, and met his then-wife Evelyn. The more he read into Socialism, the more he identified with its ideals — there was a clear shift in his ideology.
To evade the US and British intelligence, the Roys slipped across the border into Mexico, and it is here, during his time in Mexico, Roy says he was reborn. Roy’s life transformed; from a man being constantly on the run, living a meagre life, he now found a land that he truly believed was his new home. He already had gained notoriety from his previous escapades. Here, he was inducted into the intellectual circles, became friends with the president, expressed his sympathy for their struggles and found inspiration in their revolution and the communism of Russia that had made its way into the region. Roy adapted to his new life like a chameleon. He learnt, wrote and spoke Spanish better than most people living there. He was a vocal advocate for a socialist state, but the true turning point of his time in Mexico came when he met Michael Borodin, a prominent agent/emissary of the Communist International, also known as Comintern, an international organisation that was working towards furthering communism the world over. Roy and the Soviet representative who also had to flee from the US, seeking refuge in Mexico, became fast friends.
“Borodin was greatly responsible for Roy’s conversion to Communism. Borodin was a very learned and a cultured intellect. And Roy was a willing student. Roy learnt from him not only the intricacies of dialectical materialism but also the greatness of European culture. He said of Borodin, ‘He initiated me in the intricacies of Hegelian Dialectics and its materialist version as the key to Marxism. (Memoirs p.195).’ And, that broke his resistance to the materialism of the Marxist thought. Roy now became a materialist in his philosophical thought. Borodin had also helped Roy to outgrow his cultural parochialism. It was a leap from die-hard nationalism to communism,” notes Sreenivasarao.
“Till he met Borodin, Roy still believed, though waveringly, in the necessity of armed insurrection. But from Borodin, he ‘learned to attach greater importance to an intelligent understanding of the idea of revolution. The propagation of the idea was more important than arms.”
Through his interactions with other communists that he was introduced to by Borodin, and his induction into the Socialist party changed his political philosophy. He flourished in this new society and outgrew his ‘cultural nationalism’. He gained support for his critique of the British who were viewed as the ‘colonial bullies’ of the world. Roy admired the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia as a successful struggle by the people themselves. The end of the World War saw many changes globally, and Vladimir Lenin gained power. Soon, Comintern worked to spread communist ideologies around the world, starting with Mexico, and Roy played a key role in this wave of change.
While Roy had been an active personality in the socialist party of the region, there was a break from the existing group and thus, the Mexican Communist Party was formed in 1917 by Roy, Borodin, Charles Francis Phillips, along with active Comintern emissaries Louis Fraina and Sen Katayama. This was the first legitimate communist party to be established outside of Russia, and Roy’s name slowly became synonymous with communist expansion. Circa September 1919, Lenin extended an invitation to Roy and the Mexican Communist Party to attend the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. Roy along with his wife were given special diplomatic passports by the then-President Carranza, whom Roy had developed a real friendship with, to travel to Russia as special emissaries – still using false names – and as sad as Roy was to bid adieu to the “land of his re-birth” he knew his place was now at the Comintern.
It is said that Roy had numerous meetings with Lenin before the beginning of the conference, and while their views differed regarding the role of the bourgeoisie in nationalist movements, upon Lenin’s request, Roy’s supplementary thesis on the matter was adopted alongside Lenin’s own by the Second Conference. “ By the end of 1926, Roy was elected as a member of all the four official policy-making bodies of the Comintern - the presidium, the political secretariat, the executive committee and the world congress,” states the peer-reviewed Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
It was interactions with people like Lenin, Borodin, Trotsky, even Ho Chi Minh and Sun Yat-sen, that moulded Roy as a global thinker. But following Joseph Stalin’s takeover and a failed expedition to organise communism in China, Roy’s position in the organisation began to fall. He butted heads with Stalin on his policies and was subsequently expelled from the Comintern.
Roy returned to India, not defeated but as a new man. Unfortunately, his return mobilised the still-ruling British and he was arrested soon after his arrival and put on trial for his role in the Kanpur Communist Conspiracy Case. The British may have celebrated his ‘physical’ capture and sentence of six years imprisonment, but Roy’s mind was as free as ever, and it was during his time in prison that he really reflected and re-evaluated his beliefs, his true philosophy and did most of his writings. For him, this was a time of study and his jail writings, the ‘Prison Manuscripts’, lay the foundation of his new thought. It is believed that “Roy tried to reformulate materialism in the light of latest developments in the physical and biological sciences. He was convinced that without the growth and development of a materialist and rationalist outlook in India, neither a renaissance nor a democratic revolution would be possible. In a way, seeds of the philosophy of new humanism, which was later developed fully by Roy, were already evident in his jail writings.”
While the matter is still contested, Dr S Lalitha writes that “the Communist Party of India was formed in October 1920, in the city of Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan in the Soviet Union, on the initiative of MN Roy. The first Manifesto of the communist party of India under Roy’s leadership was addressed to the 36th session of the Indian National Congress held in Ahmedabad in 1921.”
Upon his release in 1939, he joined the Indian National Congress (INC) viewing them as the leaders of the brave new Indian order. His body of followers were organised into the League of Radical Congressman, only to later fall out with the INC over their position and view of India’s role in the Second World War.
Roy moved forward in setting up the Radical Democratic Party and in 1947, New Humanism - A Manifesto penned by Roy was published. While the formed party didn’t hold up to the ideals of his democratic thought, his resultant manifesto on New Humanism proposed a new route for Indians to attain freedom, proposing a “scientific, materialist, humanist philosophy.”
“He traced morality to its biological roots and suggested that human progress depended on progress towards liberty and truth. In 1948 he launched the Radical Humanist Movement in India, which in 1952 joined with other humanist groups in Europe and America to found the International Humanist and Ethical Union.”
MN Roy was a complex man, one that journeyed from being a wayward ‘terrorist’ with a nationalist fervour that travelled the world, to being a broad-minded, global-thinking intellectual whose ideas moved beyond the boundaries, regional and international identities. He passed away at the age of 67 in Dehradun, as one of India’s most prominent political thinkers, activist, theorist and philosopher whose impact was felt the world over. The MN Roy nightclub stands as a memorial to this incredible man, albeit in an odd, almost ironic way, with most attendees unaware of the events that took place within those walls nor the man who was made there, as they continue to sway to the pulse of the music.
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