"The Time Has Come..." M.N. Roy and the problem of anti-colonial Marxism

ammar ali jan


In the twentieth century, the primary question posed to communists from the non-European world was whether their societies were “ready” for communist politics, a suspicion arising out of the close tie between historical progress and revolutionary subjectivity in orthodox Marxist politics. If the victory of the Russian revolution opened a new sequence in which the disjunct between History and politics became a cause for propelling rather than constraining the revolution, the relationship between the two terms became even more tenuous in Marxism’s encounter with the colonial world. Until the second congress of the Comintern, however, Marxism remained tied to older categories that could not identify a neatly defined sociological term that could carry out its “historical role” in the colonial situation.

In this paper, I look at the writings of M.N. Roy, an Indian Marxist who became one of the leading members of the Comintern, and the primary theoretician of the colonial question. I examine his interventions in the Comintern, including his spectacular disagreements with Lenin and leading intellectuals of the British communist party, on the place of anti-colonial movements in global communist thought. I show how the imperative to secure the colonial world as an equal ally in the fight against capitalism compelled Roy to address the relationship between orthodox Marxist theory, and its historical existence under colonial conditions. To grasp the rupture engendered by Roy within Marxist thought, we need to focus on his theorization of the revolutionary subject, especially since the traditional category of the proletariat was an insignificant social force in the colonial world. This, I argue, will also require us to to study his re-conceptualization of revolutionary temporality, with particular attention on his efforts to rethink the relationship between Marxism, anti-colonialism and History. Therefore, apart from the debates on the colonial question in the Comintern, I seek to engage broader themes such as the movement of ideas across global space, non-European Marxism and universalism.

Anti-colonialism - history