Of Underground Asian Revolutionaries and a Deadly Blow to European Imperialism

Tim Harper's latest book, 'Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire', charts the lives of a group of Asian revolutionaries who set in motion anti-imperialist movements, including Sen Katayama, Ho Chi Minh and others.

Tim Harper’s book, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, represents a special kind of history writing at its very best. It is breathtaking in its sweep, matchless in its command of diverse sources spread across different archives, remarkable in its empathy for the lives and emotions of forgotten men and women and for the clarity of its prose.

The phrase “special kind of history writing” in the opening sentence has been used very deliberately. The craft of history writing tends to range from the narrowly focused analysis of an event or a family – micro history – to the grand narrative that reveals the role of individuals and forces implicated in the rise and fall of empires, revolutions, nations and so on.

Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire by Tim Harper. Photo: Allen Lane/Amazon.

It would be convenient to typecast Harper’s book as a “grand narrative” since the book traverses the globe, but for the fact that living human beings with agency informed by hopes and visions inhabit the pages of his book.

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For Harper, these individuals and their work are as significant as the forces that shaped their lives and ideas. His book is a reminder that the making of history is often messy and even in the hands of the master craftsman well-nigh impossible to capture in neatly constructed analytical/theoretical frames. Harper’s strength and skill in this book are that he conveys this “messiness” without sacrificing, even for a moment, lucidity and accessibility. One can only envy such craftsmanship.

The Asian quartet

After such high praise, where and how does one begin to review this book?

Perhaps one could begin with a photograph since pictures always say more than words ever can. It is a picture taken in 1923 and one that probably circulated among police officials, spies and informers in Europe and in Asia.

The photograph shows Grigory Zinoviev, prominent Bolshevik and leader of the Comintern, seated at the centre. To his right is the Japanese anarchist and socialist, Sen Katayama; next to him is Nguyen Ai Quoc who would become famous as Ho Chi Minh; behind him, third from the left is Tan Malaka, exiled from Sumatra in 1921 to the Netherlands; and beside him – of obvious interest to all students of modern Indian history – stands M.N. Roy who was from Bengal but had arrived in Moscow having travelled through Southeast Asia, Japan, China and the US.

This Asian quartet and others were at the heart of what Harper calls “the greatest missionary undertaking of the modern age”. Trained and inspired in Moscow, such individuals returned to Asia to set in motion anti-imperialist movements which they hoped would lead to communist revolutions and the liberation of humanity.

These revolutionaries were constantly on the move – travelling under aliases, forged documents, illicit currencies and with proscribed literature hidden in their luggage. If capital and the bourgeoisie had globalised and connected the world so had the prospect of revolution.

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In Harper’s words, “They [the revolutionaries] experienced a world of connections, but also a world upside down: the underbelly of the great port cities of empire…The sites of their struggles were the waterfront, the lodging house, the coffee shop, the clandestine printing press in the back alley.’’

From the underground world they inhabited, they radiated global awareness about a spectrum of radical ideas – about empire, national identity, class, revolution, the position of women, the function of art and literature and a vision of a just and better future. Neither the vision nor the ideas that engendered the vision were uniform.

Born out of a shared history of exploitation and oppression, irreconcilable doctrines – nationalism, anarchism, communism and even religious revivalism – converged in opposition to western imperialism. There were two principal themes in the debates that engaged these men and women. One was how far violence could be used for political ends and how the use of violence could be justified/legitimised.

The other was the conviction that Asia would lead the struggle for human freedom – what Tan Malaka termed “100 per cent independence’’. The political and ideological context for the activities and ideas of these revolutionaries was, of course, the two world wars, the rise of communism and the growing tide of nationalism in Asia.

But this context was experienced differently by these revolutionaries – differently from those who died in the wars, from those building the first communist state and from those leading mass national movements. Individuals like Tan Malaka, Ho Chi Minh and M.N. Roy and many others were not anchored to one particular space or event: they fought across the globe for a common cause. The world was their stage.

Imperial despotism and vision for freedom

The curtain rises around 1905 and in Vietnam. A new generation born on either side of 1890 was coming of age and was experiencing the age of imperialism. They were motivated by a desire to change and to “search for new, universal civilizing standards’’. For them, the future was open to a myriad of imaginative possibilities but they were also afflicted, in Harper’s telling phrase, by the “asphyxia of empire’’.

Between the freedom of their imagination and the pursuit of their vision fell the grim shadow of imperial despotism. A handful escaped, at enormous personal risk and sacrifice to Japan (emerging as the “light of Asia’’) and others to Europe, especially France, to learn first hand about the West. If as Disraeli had said in the 19th century the Orient was a career, then at the beginning of a new century the Occident was the vista to revolution.

From their own countries which they had lost to Europe, these would-be revolutionaries exiled themselves to Europe to learn there the weapons that would destroy European domination. These journeys were possible because capital for its own reasons had connected different parts of the globe. Capital and by implication its Other, revolution, had, in the memorable words of The Communist Manifesto, begun to “nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere’’.

Thus these “mobile Asians’’, as Harper rightly notes, “were among the first people to experience world history’’. He could have added they were victims of world history and they made world history. But their shaping of world history did not happen in known and established locations. They, by force of circumstances, occupied in Harper’s telling phrase, “liminal spaces’” – “locations of sudden displacement and new solidarities…such as port city slums and the mining and plantation frontiers’’.

The first ideology they encountered and embraced was anarchism “as a doctrine of self-help and self-governance, as a vision of internationalism and of a world less patriarchal’’. Out of this cauldron of experiences and ideas emerged the idea of an imperial and revolutionary underground – an underground which by definition was mobile like the people who inhabited it – people who were “harrying, disappearing, burrowing and then resurfacing somewhere else’’.

Given the history that Harper constructs and narrates, his account crisscrosses across the world in pursuit of his dramatis personae. There are too many characters and too many incidents that add to the richness of his book and to the density of the narrative.

It is impossible to write about most of the individuals whose life and career Harper tracks through detailed research in various archives. For the sake of this review, one could just stay with the photograph with which I began.

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The lives of the five individuals mentioned in a way encapsulate in a poignant and even in a tragic way the trajectory of the revolution(s) all of them in their different ways struggled to bring about.

Zinoviev was removed from his position by Stalin and was later denounced and then executed in a mock trial. Sen Katayama became active in radical politics in the USA, but for reasons unexplained disappears from Harper’s radar.

Nguyen Ai Quoc

For Nguyen Ai Quoc, the trek home after his European sojourn began in early 1941. He had been allowed in 1938 to leave Moscow for China where he met Zhou Enlai. After Indochina fell to the Japanese, he returned home after 30 years to set up a secret base in the Cao Bang province where the communist had made major inroads. From there he was able to launch his long-term and broad-front strategy and establish a coalition of national resistance led by the communists but called a League for the Independence of Vietnam, the Viet Minh.

Faced with the repression of the Vichy government, Quoc urged caution; he remained in the background and took on his last and most famous alias Ho Chi Minh. In August 1942, he attempted to go to Chongqing, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital, but was arrested by a Chinese military commander and incarcerated for 18 months. This added to his becoming a legend.

In 1944, when he returned to Cao Bang, the base area had expanded and the French were beginning to discover that behind it all was Ho Chi Minh who was none other than Nguyen Ai Quoc. On 2 September 1945, reading the international situation correctly, under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the Viet Minh declared a provisional government. The rest is history. This journey of Ho Chi Minh has obvious significance. The son of a mandarin, he had made himself into a plebian; he had travelled far from his homeland in quest of international revolution and had ended up as a patriot who attained the acme of his fame in organising the resistance against the mightiest military power in the second half of the 20th century.

His life seemed to embody M.N. Roy’s comment in 1952 (which in substance was echoing what Lenin had said at the Baku conference in 1920) that “Asian communism is nationalism painted red, the means becomes the end’’. To end the irony: today Ho’s legatees pursue capitalism with some glee.

Tan Malaka

Tan Malaka was in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese in 1942. He was witness to the worst horrors that the Japanese perpetrated there and was lucky to escape alive. He arrived in Sumatra and discovered even after 20 years he was remembered there. He moved on to Batavia (now Jakatra) where he wrote Madilog: Materialisme, Dialektika dan Logika (Madilog, Materialism, Dialectic and Logic): “an attempt to rewrite Marx, as if Marx were writing from within an Indonesian, Islamic or, more particularly, Minangkabau world view. It was a lesson in the purpose and power of reason, to instruct the young people of Indonesia.’’

Tan Malaka, still under a borrowed name, was in Batavia when on August 17, 1945, Sukarno declared the Indonesian republic of which Malaka had been the prophet. At the vanguard of the movement that led to the republic were radicalised youth. The future of the republic was threatened by an Anglo-Dutch operation to reoccupy the Indies using Singapore now under British control as their base.

Malaka met Sukarno in secret and Sukarno told him that if Sukarno were to be arrested Malaka should lead the republic. Malaka tried to organise mass rallies to resist the British but Sukarno was wary of such extreme movements which could turn violent. Malaka in disgust left Jakatra and headed east, never to return. He was present in the aftermath of the British occupation of Surabaya in October 1945 when British and Indian troops were resisted street by street not with guns but by bamboo staves and knives. Thousands died.

While Sukarno called for order and calm, Malaka, revealed himself and gave the call for “one hundred per cent independence’’: the immediate departure of all foreign troops from Indonesian soil, a people’s government and the people’s ownership of the economy.

But the new Indonesian republican government, eager to negotiate with the British and the Dutch, would have none of this and had Malaka arrested. He was in jail for 18 months. By this time the Indonesian republic and revolution were divided into warring factions and Malaka was treated as an outcaste by all groups. He was arrested by the Tentara Nasional Indonesia (TNI), an Indonesian National Army and executed in February 1949. His tumultuous life had moved from international revolution to national liberation.

M.N. Roy

This brings us to “the return of the native” – Naren Bhattacharya, alias Reverend Martin, alias Mr White and finally the cover name by which he came to be famous, M.N. Roy. For this son of a Bengali schoolmaster who had been associated with armed revolutionaries in Bengal in the early 20th century and had then fled British India to escape arrest, “the impotence of exile’’ had become unbearable by the late 1920s. He had been to Japan, Hong Kong, Mexico and the US.

When he came back to Moscow in 1927 from China, where the party had sent him, he had fallen out of favour. Stalin was in control and the consequences of not being in Stalin’s good books were becoming evident. In early 1928 he crossed the Soviet border in secret and surfaced in Berlin. His reputation was under constant attack from the communist establishment; he was expelled from the Comintern and denounced as a renegade.

In November 1930, having lost the anchor of communist internationalism, he decided to return to India. He was arrested in India and on his release sought the friendship of Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. He was disliked by most Congressmen not in the least by Gandhi, who Roy also treated with great loathing and suspicion. Roy ended up as a lonely and disillusioned person living in Dehradun, a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The only acknowledgment of his communist past was a photograph of Stalin that he kept on the mantelpiece. That keepsake was ironic since Stalin would surely have had Roy executed. Roy left behind no intellectual or ideological legacy of any significance.

Heroic and tragic lives

It would be easy to see the lives of these individuals as wasted. Harper retrieves them from the condescension of oblivion. Their lives, heroic and tragic, had become entangled with the ugliness and myopia of Stalin’s Comintern and then engulfed by the rising tide of mainstream nationalism and national revolutions. This left many dead, others disillusioned. Only Ho Chi Minh remained unscathed and eminent but his life and ideology too had taken different dimensions with the rise of the Cold War and US imperialism. But these individuals, as Harper’s books poignantly remind us, had heard (to use Pushkin’s unforgettable words) “the roaring sound..the music of the spheres’’.

At one simple level, the word “underground’’ denotes undercover work, activities considered illegal by the government of the day. Revolutionaries almost always begin as denizens of the underground; when revolutionaries form a state, they drive dissenters underground. Revolutions stifle their children.

But the word “underground’’ also invokes Dostoevsky’s classic Notes from the Underground, where the author with his unmatched genius explored the unhappy effects of the dilemmas of “underground man’’ – a representative of Russian personality – trying to live by two European codes.

The book is haunted by prophetic anticipation which is not untouched by parody. The inhabitants of underground Asia responded to the call of communist internationalism but their homelands sought freedom from the empire. These were two different codes of struggle which they were unable to resolve. They were prophets doomed.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of history at Ashoka University.