Emma Goldman and M.N. Roy: Lasting legacies

Print edition : July 16, 2021

VLADIMIR LENIN, Maxim Gorky (behind Lenin), M.N. Roy (right, extreme) and others. A 1920 picture. Photo: the hindu archives

Emma Goldman. Her life-long opposition to regimes of tyranny and violent authority ensured her non-acceptance by all political systems.

How does the retrieval of the forgotten narratives of Emma Goldman and M.N. Roy, towering personalities in their own times, help us in charting out utopian vistas that could be relevant to our own times?

BEGINNING with a landmark publication in 1991 called Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World,[i] Stephen Greenblatt, avant-garde literary-cultural critic and leading exponent of an influential movement called New Historicism, argued against ‘disciplinary hegemony’ and found in ‘interdisciplinarity an important means of generating new knowledge’.[ii] Critiquing the long-accepted notion of ‘objective’ historiography, the Harvard critic maintained that ‘historical truth arises from the inadequacy of the story that is told’. Examining closely the diaries of Christopher Columbus regarding his voyages to the New World, originally scripted by the explorer in Spanish, Greenblatt unveiled, with extraordinary originality and insight, the ideological underpinnings of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America. New Historicism led to important consequences, including revisionist history, viewed from the standpoint of the experience of the marginalised and forgotten people.

Forgotten Narratives

Following Greenblatt, I shall try and restore, in this essay, two seminal narratives to public attention. I shall endeavor to show that the near disappearance of the twin narratives has not been accidental. Indeed, there are underlying political, ideological and institutional reasons that may help explain why the memories of the two figures who played a pivotal role during the first half of the 20th century on the world scene have been tragically glossed over and lost to later generations. I shall also argue that the retrieval of the two is relevant to our times.

Emma Goldman and M.N. Roy were towering personalities in their own times, who chartered out political and literary paths for themselves. Both were part of long-established philosophical and political tradition; both aligned themselves with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and lent support (Roy for a longer period) to it, but because of their independent, dissenting and original thinking, both parted company from Bolshevism in due course. Recent works by independent historians[iii], such as Anne Applebaum, Donald Rayfield, Tim Tzouliadis and Amy Knight, on the basis of declassified papers of the Soviet archives, would help explain the serious reservations Emma Goldman and Roy had with regard to the nature of the Bolshevist regime, which is acknowledged by a growing number of Marxist sympathisers today. Such works must be seen against the background of the classic study by David Caute, The Fellow-Travelers: Intellectual Friends of Communism, 1988.[iv]

Indeed, Goldman and Roy had the foresight to see the nature of the system that would unfold in the erstwhile Soviet Union. They maintained that while the October Revolution was unquestionably timely, momentous and epoch-making, it went paradoxically against some of its own cherished beliefs.[v]

Regrettably, both Goldman and Roy have been treated as renegades in orthodox Marxist circles, and appropriated as anti-communists in partisan sections.[vi] They seem to be largely missing in the New Left circles as well. This is a loss to the intellectual history of Marxism and to the future possibilities of the movement, especially in the era of late capitalism and ‘globalisation’ of the world, which have caused widespread disenchantments in economic and cultural terms throughout the world.

Also read: Origins of Communist Party of India, in Tashkent

I suggest that Emma Goldman and Roy, despite their differences with official communism, were life-long supporters of socialism of the cooperative kind. Towards the end of his life and career, Roy championed what was called radical humanism, which also had an important component of cooperative socialism.

The centenary of the October Revolution in 2017, rightfully celebratory in character, did not seem to carry, deeper introspections (honourable exceptions apart) regarding the Bolshevist movement and its critique by sympathetic adversaries, barring the mandatory critique of Stalinism. The amnesia is unfortunate and needs to be discarded for a more complete account of the movement and its future possibilities.

Emma Goldman: The Radical Free-thinker

Emma Goldman’s birth into a Jewish family in Lithuania on June 27, 1869, in the former Russian Empire; her life in the United States as an immigrant; her involvement in the revolutionary trade union, suffragette, working class, birth control, and feminist movements; her literary work through the anarchist journal Mother Earth in 1906; her autobiography Living My Life[vii] along with five other books; her deportation to Russia in 1917; her meeting with the various factions of the October Revolution; her fateful encounter with Lenin along with her life companion Alexander Berkman, in March 1920; her affinity with cooperative socialism and reverence for Kropotkin; her two seminal works, My Disillusionment in Russia and My Further Disillusionment in Russia; and, finally, her strong views on the prison system, atheism, freedom of speech, marriage, free love and homosexuality, ensure her contemporary relevance. She died on May 14, 1940, in Toronto, Canada, practically unsung, and is sadly missing today in the public domain.

Emma Goldman’s life-long opposition to regimes of tyranny and violent authority ensured her non-acceptance by all political systems, although she participated in major revolutions, including the Spanish Civil War and the October Revolution. I would, therefore, make a claim for the preservation of all documents relating to the life and times of Emma Goldman, and make them easily available to the present generation of students of culture, dealing with freedom, dissidence and internment, systems of belief, faith and atheism, as well as various forms of utopian living at national and international levels.

Roy: The Thinker as the Revolutionary

Roy, who was born Manabendra Nath Bhattacharya on March 22, 1887, in the Bengal Presidency of British India and died on January 25, 1954, in Dehradun, has nearly disappeared from public memory in the East and West despite his monumental achievements as an eminent revolutionary and writer who rubbed shoulders with Lenin and the leading lights of the Comintern (the Communist International). His early revolutionary-nationalistic work through Jugantar; his active participation in the Indo-German Conspiracy in 1914, the founding of the Mexican Communist Party in 1917, and the Communist Party of India (Tashkent group) in October 1920; his participation in the Comintern Congress as a delegate and Stalin’s representation to China; his expulsion from the Comintern by Stalin in December 1929; his arrival in India and being sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 1932 in the Kanpur Conspiracy case; his meeting with Nehru, Bose and Gandhi; his differences with Gandhi, the Congress party and the Indian Communists; his support of the Allied Powers during the Second World War against the Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy (the latter as in the case of Sri Aurobindo); his differences with the Congress; his major publications such as New Humanism and ‘the establishment of Radical Humanism as an alternative to Capitalism and Communism’, make him an equally eminent thinker and man of action of the 20th century. What is most remarkable is that at the suggestion of Lenin, Roy prepared his own thesis as a supplement to Lenin's Preliminary Draft Theses on the National and the Colonial Questions. [viii]

Clearly, there is an urgent need to reclaim the narrative of Roy with all the rich complexity present in his life and work[ix]. Roy met Lenin in May 1920 while Goldman did so in March that year. While the young Roy, somewhat overawed, came out with unqualified admiration for Lenin, the older and more experienced Goldman, was not taken in by Lenin’s claims and his view that freedom is a ‘bourgeois luxury’ that has no place during the Revolution. In fact, as events would reveal, Roy was to discover the real nature of the Bolshevik tyranny when he was expelled from the Comintern in 1929. He managed to escape narrowly, through the timely help of a Russian colleague, to India and chart out a new stage of his revolutionary and literary life.

Emma Goldman’s meeting with Lenin

As Goldman writes:

The interview with Lenin was arranged by Balabanova. ‘You must see Ilyich, talk to him about the things that are disturbing you and the work you would like to do,’ she had said. But some time passed before the opportunity came. At last, one day Balabanova called up to ask whether I could go at once. Lenin had sent his car and we were quickly driven over to the Kremlin, passed without question by the guards, and at last ushered into the workroom of the all-powerful President of the People’s Commissars.


I broached the subject of the Anarchists in Russia. I showed him a letter I had received from Martens, the Soviet representative in America, shortly before my deportation. Martens asserted that the Anarchists in Russia enjoyed full freedom of speech and press. Since my arrival I found scores of Anarchists in prison and their press suppressed. I explained that I could not think of working with the Soviet Government so long as my comrades were in prison for opinion’s sake. I also told him of the resolutions of the Moscow Anarchist Conference. He listened patiently and promised to bring the matter to the attention of his party. ‘But as to free speech’, he remarked, ‘that is, of course, a bourgeois notion. There can be no free speech in a revolutionary period. We have the peasantry against us because we can give them nothing in return for their bread. We will have them on our side when we have something to exchange. Then you can have all the free speech you want—but not now.’ [x]

M.N. Roy’s meeting with Lenin

Roy recollects in his autobiography:

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 behavior, plain in looks and rather shabbily attired, she was evidently efficient with her unobtrusive authority. Pin drop silence reigned in the large room occupied by Lenin’s personal Secretariat, which was composed of about a dozen people.


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.


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 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…. 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. [xi]

Looking back at a later period, Roy mused in his autobiography: “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.”[xii]

Future: Cooperative Socialism?

Could Lenin have tried out a newer form of socialism through his New Economic Policy had his life not been cut short, as Roy muses? Such questions would remain hypothetical, but it was central to Roy, especially in his later days. As V.M. Tarkunde, one of the best civil rights exponents of his time wrote about Roy’s economic and political philosophy in memorable terms:

Contrary to economic thinking which was then current, Roy gave priority in the People’s Plan to the development of agriculture and small-scale industry. The Indian state, according to the Draft Constitution of Free India, was to be organised on the basis of a countrywide network of Peoples’ Committees having wide powers such as initiating legislation, expressing opinion on pending bills, recall of representatives and referendum on important national issues.[xiii]

Also read: Prakash Karat: ‘Our stress is on the widest unity against authoritarianism’

This was indeed a clarion call for a decentralised approach to development based on people’s participation at the State and regional level, an approach that is still waiting for its day in India.

Sri Aurobindo

Goldman and Roy were not the only ones to have faith in cooperative socialism. In the postscript chapter of his important political treatise called The Ideal of Human Unity, Sri Aurobindo was to write with great insight about the future course of events. He wrote at the height of the Cold War in 1950:

It is not that the principles of Communism necessitate any such results or that its system must lead to a termite civilization or the suppression of the individual; it could well be, on the contrary, a means at once of the fulfilment of the individual and the perfect harmony of a collective being. The already developed systems which go by the name are not really Communism but constructions of an inordinately rigid State Socialism. But Socialism itself might develop away from Marxist groove and evolve less rigid modes; a cooperative socialism, for instance, without any bureaucratic rigor of a coercive administration, of a police state, might one day come into existence…[xiv]


This then could be the lasting legacy of Goldman and Roy: a move towards greater unity and equality among mankind, based on the principles of freedom and cooperation, enunciated by Emma Goldman, Kropotkin and their followers. In varied measures, the approach finds strength in Roy as well. It resonates today with a growing body of experiments in community living throughout the world, outside the pale of the all-powerful state.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former professor and head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He is the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha. His latest book is Cosmopolitan Modernity in Early 20th-Century India (Routledge, 2018).


[i] Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

[ii] The Greenblatt Reader, edited by Michael Payne, MA: Blackwell Publishing, USA, 2005.p3. Gratefully acknowledge a personal copy received from Professor Greenblatt in 2005 at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

[iii] See, among others, Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum, London: Penguin Books, 2003; The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia by Tim Tzouliadis, London: Penguin Books, 2008; Stalin and His Hangmen, by Donald Rayfield, Viking, 2004; London 2005; Beria: Stalin’s First Lieutenant by Amy Knight, Princeton: Princeton University Press,1993.

[iv] The Fellow-Travelers: Intellectual Friends of Communism, by David Caute, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988. Caute underlines the political and ideological circumstances that led to the pronounced affinity most intellectuals of the times had towards Bolshevist Communism in Russia during the first half of the 20th Century. By far the best book on the subject.

[v] One of the first moves made by the Bolshevists who seized power from the Social Democrat Kerensky, was to establish the All Russian Extraordinary Commission (commonly known as Cheka) to deal with counter-revolutionary activities. The approach was laid down by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of Cheka, who defended the organisation in unequivocal terms:

‘We stand for organised terror—this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. When confronted with evidence criminals in almost every case confess; and what argument can have greater weight than a criminal’s own confession?’. https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/480078.Felix_Dzerzhinsky, accessed on 27.5.21.

Initially meant to defend the new Russian State against elements of the old guard, subversives, hoarders and criminals, Cheka soon acquired extralegal authority, especially after the failed assassination of Lenin on August 30, 1918, by Fanya Kaplan, a member of the Social Revolutionary Party, one of the many political factions that functioned underground during the early days of the Revolution.

For a good understanding of this subject, see, Russia and the Cult of State Security: The Chekist Tradition, From Lenin to Putin by Julie Fedor, Routledge, 2013.

[vi] Upon her return to England from Russia, after the initial spirit of welcome by well-known thinker-writers like Harold Laski and Rebecca West, Emma Goldman did not get the hearings she expected due to the pro-Bolshevist sentiments then current in the continent. See https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emma-goldman-living-my-life. Accessed on 28.5.21.

[vii] https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/emma-goldman-living-my-life. Accessed on 28.5.21.

[viii] Sibnarayan Ray, In Freedom's Quest: Life of M.N. Roy (Vol. 1: 1887–1922). Calcutta: Minerva Associates, 1998, pp. 93-94. An important and sympathetic publication in recent years has been by Kris Manjapra entitled M.N. Roy: Marxism and Colonial Cosmopolitanism, New Delhi : Routledge India, 2010. Manjapra’s study, excellent as it is, sadly, does not seem to find many takers even in elite departments of history, political science, philosophy and cultural studies in India.

[ix] Oxford University Press has brought out the Selected Works of M.N. Roy from 1987 through 1997, A total of four volumes were edited and published by Sibnarayan Ray. Unfortunately, the project was abandoned in 2008 following the demise of Ray, a great loss to Roy scholarship. The volumes are not widely publicised.

[x] See Emma Goldman, My Disillusement in Russia, New York: Doubleday Page and Company, 1923, pp. 47-51. Also see, the letter of Kropotkin to Lenin in Cosmopolitan Modernity in Early 20th Century India by Sachidananda Mohanty, New Delhi: Routledge 2nd edition, Global and South Asian, 2018. pp. 8-9.

[xi] See Mint-on-Sunday Stalin’s Youngman: M.N. Roy and the Russian Revolution: First Meeting with Lenin. https://www.livemint.com › Sundayapp › Stalins-youngman, Accessed on 26.5.21.

[xii] https://www.livemint.com › Sundayapp › Stalins-youngman, Accessed on 26.5.21.

[xiii] V.M. Tarkunde, ‘Introduction’ to Men I Met by M.N. Roy, New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1968; rpt. 1981. The book offers pen portraits of many world famous figures Roy met in his career.

[xiv] Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, [First edition, 1919]; rpt. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1998.

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