Man of paradoxes

Print edition : April 19, 2013

M.N. Roy with his second wife Ellen Gottschalk in Bombay in March 1937. Photo: THE HINDU

Still from the documentary 'The Comintern Brahmin': M.N. Roy with Bolshevik leaders at the 2nd Comintern Congress of 1920. Photo: fdaf sdgds fed

Still from the documentary 'The Comintern Brahmin': Moscow in present times. Photo: dsaf sdfg vsdg

Still from the documentary 'The Comintern Brahmin': busts of Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders lying in the dumpyard of a building, indicating the state of communist artefacts in Russia today. Photo: f dfsgsdf dafd ffggf

Still from the documentary 'The Comintern Brahmin': Director Vladimir Leon looking at Roy's digital photos in the Russian Archives in Moscow. Photo: f sds fd fsd fdafsdf f

French director Vladimir Leon’s film on M.N. Roy explores the trajectory of the revolutionary’s life and politics.

SOMETIME at the turn of the millennium, an old but famous photograph set internationally acclaimed French documentary film-maker Vladimir Leon on a quest for a forgotten man in the annals of history. Guessing the film-maker’s Russian connection, the Indian historian Hari Vasudevan showed Leon the iconic photograph shot during the second Communist International (Comintern) Congress in 1920. Amidst the tall Bolshevik leaders of the time such as Grigory Zinoveiv, Vladimir Lenin and Maxim Gorky, there was an Indian face in the picture. It was that of Manabendra Nath Roy, or M.N. Roy, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India in 1920.

“Here was a man about whom the world hardly knew anything,” says Leon, who found in Roy’s life the perfect plot for a film. “Roy was a part of incredible moments in history. Imagine a person from a rural family in colonial India being witness to three of the most revolutionary periods of the 20th century.”

Roy, who in the early 20th century was part of an underground revolutionary organisation called Anushilan Samiti in the then Bengal, also founded the Communist Party of Mexico with 10 people, became the leader of the militant peasant movement there, represented both India and Mexico in the second Comintern Congress as an important delegate and, later, participated in the Indian nationalist movement. Despite such struggles, Roy remained on the margins of history.

Leon started filming Roy’s life in 2002 and, in the four years that he took to complete the film, he travelled the entire northern hemisphere, from Mexico to Russia to India and Germany. Through the course of the film-making, Leon discovered facets of Roy’s life that were nothing less than paradoxical. From being a staunch nationalist, inspired by the socio-religious reformer Vivekananda, the nationalist writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and the revolutionary anti-colonial leader Bagha Jatin, all from Bengal, Roy became a devoted internationalist switching between being a Marxist, believing in a worldwide revolution, and a radical humanist in the heyday of his life. He was expelled from the Comintern in 1928, but he remained a Marxist. Like the European communists, he supported the anti-Stalinist politics of the Communist Party of Germany (Opposition). When he returned to India in the 1930s, he drew the wrath of Indian communists because he deviated from communism to become a radical humanist. He formed the Radical Democratic Party in 1940.

To every place that Leon went to learn about his protagonist, Roy was a hated figure. In Mexico, the communists considered Roy a traitor because he did not speak about Mexican problems at the second Comintern Congress. In Russia, Roy was known for having contested with Lenin. While Lenin believed, in principle and in politics, that nationalist movements across the world should be supported if they were anti-colonial in nature, Roy believed that the struggles should not be supported unless they were militant.

Roy cited the example of the Indian nationalist movement, which he felt did not question the status quo of power. He said that the non-violent struggle in India was only a bourgeois struggle for power and predicted that India would achieve independence by a mutual exchange of power, and that the British would grant India independence peacefully for retaining it as a vibrant market, and that in the process, the age-old exploitation of the proletariat would not end and another exploitative state would come to power.

Just as in the other countries where Roy played a role, in India too, he is best known as a communist renegade who deviated from the path of revolution. If not for these paradoxes, Leon would not have named his film The Comintern Brahmin. Leon’s film, made in French and in a style typical of a slow French docudrama, was screened recently in New Delhi and Kolkata with support from the Indian Renaissance Institute that Roy formed.

The film shows Roy’s life unfolding in front of the viewer, without Leon trying to direct the viewer in any one direction. Sometimes investigative, sometimes reflective, sometimes trying to talk about Roy’s personal life, the film tries to merge contemporary political understanding with the historical praxis. Without making him a hero, Leon keeps hinting to the viewer that Roy’s life is a means for a revolutionary to understand contemporary dilemmas.

The title of the film, as problematic as it sounds, became one of its most discussed points. To Leon, it denoted Roy’s paradoxes more than anything else. A communist would not believe in religion but still has to grapple with religious issues. “Roy never fits a category. He was a philosopher and a politician at the same time,” says Leon. “My idea was to conceptualise the dilemmas of the contemporary revolutionary. Roy’s life, back in the early 20th century, reflected such dilemmas at a time when ideologies had a clear political agenda. That is why I named the film The Comintern Brahmin.”

Roy was a committed internationalist and yet thought of political issues in their national contexts. He grew beyond communism to form a radical humanist party, yet his thoughts were steeped in the emancipation of the common people. He came from a priestly class and denounced all forms of tradition in favour of modern ideals of renaissance and enlightenment, and yet he remained one who fiercely debated the Eurocentric ideals of 20th century Marxism.

Was he an individualist? Was he just an intellectual? Or was he actually trying to be a politician, despite repeated failures? These are some of the questions that are thrown to the viewer but remain unresolved until the end of the film.

However, what is clear is that Roy definitely was trying to cull out an alternative political trajectory, despite failing at it. For his internationalist communist self, he deemed it necessary to support Britian in its war against Germany in the Second World War as he considered it necessary to defeat fascism first in order to see any light for a revolutionary democracy. It was precisely for this that he did not support the Quit India Movement of 1942 and also the industrial strikes in Bombay (Mumbai) in the 1940s. At one time, he joined the Indian National Congress with his supporters with the intention of radicalising it, for which he is despised even today by Indian leftists. Despite militantly differing with Gandhi and his support for non-violence, and Hindu traditions and religious ideals, Roy’s political programme of forming people’s committees in villages did not differ much from Gandhi’s local governance programme. While he was a Marxist, he challenged the Comintern so much that his theories became a role model for countries such as Vietnam. “Despite being an internationalist, he felt that a contextual revolutionary base has to be necessarily created in colonial countries because their history is not the same,” says Leon.

Leon says that there are other figures in history who led a life similar to Roy’s. “Walter Benjamin, the great Frankfurt school thinker, and 19th century French thinker Alexis De Tocqueville are similar personalities. Tocqueville was hated by the leftists as he was an aristocrat and differed with Marx on many points. But he also wrote one of the best critiques of a liberal democratic state, and predicted that it had the makings of a totalitarian state, an aspect that was very novel in the 19th century. His predictions are proving true in the present times.

“Benjamin also refused to get into a bracket. He was greatly influenced by the Marxist playwright and thinker Bertolt Brecht but at the same time Jewish traditions influenced him. Like Roy, both these personalities were insiders and outsiders at the same time,” says Leon.

Roy’s politics and philosophy had changed course many a time in his life and touched continents in many ways. But if one were to attempt a lucid narrative on his life and times, one quickly realises that narrative tools tend to fail terribly. For director Leon, the difficulty lay precisely here— the inability to construct an idea of the man, the revolutionary and the thinker in Roy to varied viewers.

The documentary generated a mixed bag of responses—from fierce disapproval to sincere praise. Leon says that the film is a French point of view, and he was ready to face different reactions from people across the world. “To me, Roy’s life is interesting as it points out a world view of an internationalist and the revolutionary politics of those times. He had an idea of India beyond its territory. He thought of the Indian freedom struggle as one that could be an international example, and that is why he dissented from most political practices of that time,” Leon emphasises.

However, he agrees that Roy failed but also stresses that for Roy freedom was the ultimate trajectory to practise any kind of politics. “He was very lonely, very intellectual, a philosopher, a poet, and was part of very radical groups throughout his life in search of his politics. Until his death, he remained a figure that was rejected both by the Left and by the Right. Because for him true freedom, somehow, always clashed with his own ideologies,” says Leon.

Perhaps, it is time to relook and reread Roy since political contexts have changed. Because the paradoxes in which Roy lived have translated into pertinent issues today and hence all those invested in change are naturally implicated in his quest. And to explore the most important question, which Leon phrases aptly, “Is it possible to invent a politics where the freedom of man is not constrained? And, at the same time are you right in politics when you are right alone?”

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