Review

Underground Asia by Tom Harper review: the forgotten Left-wing network that tried to topple empire

3/5

Across the port cities of Asia in the early 20th century, an ring of international revolutionaries plotted the violent end of imperialism

At a crossroads: Nanjing Road, 
in Shanghai’s commercial district, 1936
At a crossroads: Nanjing Road, in Shanghai’s commercial district, 1936 Credit: Bettmann

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.”

A barbershop in 1930s Hong Kong  Credit:  Archive Photos

Such powerful moral arguments were rejected by Harper’s revolutionaries, who accused Gandhi of a “supplicatory approach” and who, themselves, were often intoxicated by the prospect of martyrdom. The closest they came to achieving their aims were armed uprisings in the Dutch East Indies and China in the mid-1920s by the Soviet-sponsored PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) and Kuomintang respectively. But the former was suppressed, while the latter – though more successful – was ultimately hijacked by the moderate or nationalist wing of the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who turned on his Communist allies and rejected social revolution for something more “corporatist, conservative and martial”. Harper concludes: “The first, great Asian revolution had ended as it begun, in a wave of exile.”

What, then, was the significance of these first global revolutionaries? Did they, as Harper insists, fatally undermine the foundations of empire? It seems a rather grandiose claim, and not one supported by the evidence. The key factor in the fall of the Asian empires – which Harper himself acknowledges – was the Second World War, notably Japan’s early military successes, which discredited the imperial powers and, in turn, brought in the anti-colonial United States. Few of Harper’s subjects played a leading role in what was to come. Roy, for example, was “largely a bystander to the great events of the end of empire in South Asia”. The exception was Nguyen Ai Quoc who, as Ho Chi Minh (“He Who Enlightens”), was the architect of North Vietnam’s successful overthrow of French rule in the 1950s.

According to its blurb, Underground Asia “turns our understanding of 20th-century empire upside down”. That is going too far. It is, however, an extremely valuable addition to the scholarship of modern revolutionary movements, adding much new detail from an array of multilingual sources.  At times, Harper’s objectivity slips, and he makes little attempt to disguise either his admiration for his subjects or his contempt for the colonial regimes they battled to overthrow. The revolutionaries were undoubtedly brave, but also often narcissistic and self-absorbed. They reminded me of a more recent generation of Left-wing global activists who – as members of terrorist organisations like the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof), the Red Brigades and the Japanese Red Army – sought to topple capitalism and imperialism in the 1970s with plane hijackings, kidnappings and assassinations. Give me non-violent protesters any day.

Underground Asia is published by Allen Lane at £35. To order your copy for £30, visit Telegraph Books