For the first three decades of the 20th century, a loose network of Left-wing global revolutionaries – influenced by anarchist and communist ideologies – attempted the violent overthrow of colonial regimes across Asia. Ultimately, they failed.
Yet – as the Cambridge professor Tim Harper contends in a detailed and thought-provoking study – they laid the groundwork for some of the more successful anti-imperialist movements to come, by fundamentally undermining the legitimacy of empire.
Harper lays out a cast of “diverse actors, often overlooked by national histories”. They include Tan Malaka, born in the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia) and M N Roy of West Bengal, alongside more familiar names such as the Vietnamese Nguyen Ai Quoc and Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolutionary. By the early 1920s, Malaka, Roy and Nguyen were all members of Comintern, the body set up by Soviet Russia to foment world revolution and the spread of Communism. They were in the vanguard of a large group of would-be revolutionaries who left their homelands, travelling light, writes Harper, “often under false names and nationalities, with banned literature, illicit currency or encoded messages hidden in their luggage.”
Many congregated in the “underbelly of the great port cities of empire” – Singapore, Canton, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Calcutta – where they swapped radical ideas “about class and national identity, the position of women, the function of art and literature, the history of the future”. Their chief aim was “to weave together seemingly irreconcilable doctrines – anarchism, nationalism, communism, even religious revival – in the name of unity and in opposition to western imperialism”. They hoped that, from their shared history of oppression and exploitation, they could achieve a common utopian destiny.
One early revolutionary was Vinayak Savarkar – author of The Indian War of Independence, 1857, itself a thinly disguised call to arms against British control of India – who plotted violent acts from India House in London. In 1909, two years before his exile to the prison colony in the Andaman Islands, Savarkar had an uncomfortable meeting in London with a Gujarati lawyer called M K Gandhi, who rejected out of hand the use of violence as a means to an end. The “real oppressor, the 10-headed monster,” Gandhi told Savarkar and his acolytes, “was within them and not without”. Gandhi later expanded on this non-violent theme – and one that would be fundamental to his anti-colonial strategy of non-cooperation – when he wrote: “Do you not tremble to think of freeing India by assassination? What we need to do is to kill ourselves. It is a cowardly thought, that of killing others. Whom do you suppose to free by assassination? The millions of India do not desire it… Those who will rise to power by murder will certainly not make the nation happy.”