Asia’s Anti-Colonialist Journey

International conferences are notoriously difficult to organize, all the more so when the aim is global revolution and the world’s empires oppose your agenda. When, starting in 1919, Vladimir Lenin convened the first congresses of the Communist International, some Bolsheviks were disappointed by the characters who turned up—old-fashioned socialists, trade unionists, and anarchists, coming with false papers, in disguise, under aliases, and all apparently expecting hotel rooms. The Russian revolutionary Victor Serge observed, “It was obvious at first glance that here were no insurgent souls.” Lenin kept a blinking electric light on his desk to cut meetings short. But one of the arrivals made an impression. “Very tall, very handsome, very dark, with very wavy hair,” Serge recalled. It was Manabendra Nath Roy, an Indian who was a founder of the Mexican Communist Party. When ducking imperial authorities, he used a method described by a comrade: “If you want to hide revolutionary connections . . . you had better travel first class.”

Roy had cut an unusual path to Moscow. Born into a Brahmin family in West Bengal in 1887, he left India in his twenties on a series of missions to secure funds and weapons for an uprising against the British Raj. During the First World War, a group of Indian anti-imperialists wanted the Germans to open a second front against their common enemy. But Roy’s parleys with contacts in Java, China, and Japan yielded almost nothing. In Tokyo, he resolved to press onward to the United States: “I decided to take the bull by the horn, pinned a golden cross to the lapel of my coat, put on a very sombre face, and called at the American consulate.” Disguised as “Father Martin” and having, he said, “reinforced my armour with a morocco-bound copy of the Holy Bible beautifully printed on rice-paper,” Roy arrived in San Francisco in 1916. He met with a radical Bengali poet in Palo Alto, and promptly fell in love with a Stanford graduate student named Evelyn Trent, an acquaintance of the university’s former president, David Starr Jordan, who took pride in cultivating anti-imperialists on campus.

Roy and Trent moved to Manhattan, where British and American agents, investigating a “Hindu-German conspiracy,” shadowed Roy as he met Indian anti-colonialists and immersed himself in the Marxist canon in the New York Public Library. After a brush with the New York police, the pair fled, in 1917, to Mexico, which was in the midst of a popular upheaval. There Roy witnessed a revolution, learned Spanish, and co-founded the Communist Party of Mexico—one of the first national Communist Parties outside Russia. One day, a Russian man from Chicago asked to meet Roy at a hotel: Mikhail Borodin, one of Lenin’s top lieutenants. Before long, he invited him to the Kremlin. It was the start of a journey that led not only to Moscow and Berlin but also to China, where Roy became a leading Soviet envoy during the Chinese Civil War.

If M. N. Roy is remembered today, it is as one of the more flamboyant international Communists active between the wars. But his globe-spanning trajectory was typical for thousands of young radicals who emerged from the cracks of European empires in Asia early in the last century. In “Underground Asia” (Harvard), Tim Harper provides the first comprehensive look at this dense web of resistance. The Asian underground laid long-burning fuses across great distances—attacking colonial officials, organizing strikes, founding schools, plotting insurrections, and raining down tracts and pamphlets.

Read the full article in The New Yorker.