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Remembering Ajit Roy

Ajit Roy's tenacity in bringing out The Marxist Review under most difficult conditions and his drive to address the Indian Left of different shades and to interact with activists of mass organisations, had clearly to do with his "optimism of the will", which was like an inspiring contagion for those who knew him and loved him.

COMMENTARY

Remembering Ajit Roy

Gabriele Dietrich

B T Ranadive and was expelled from the party. He was later readmitted when the party-line changed. He was elected as Calcutta District Committee member of the CPI in 1955. During the 1950s, he also

Ajit Roy’s tenacity in bringing out The Marxist Review under most difficult conditions and his drive to address the Indian Left of different shades and to interact with activists of mass organisations, had clearly to do with his “optimism of the will”, which was like an inspiring contagion for those who knew him and loved him.

Gabriele Dietrich (reach.gabriele@gmail.com) is a scholar and activist based in Madurai.

T
he passing away of comrade Ajit Roy, editor of The Marxist Review, in Kolkata on 3 June 2011 signifies in a way the end of an era. Though he was ailing and retired from public life, the thought that he was still around in the little flat in Salt Lake, faithfully cared for by his wife Chuni and his daughter Nandini, had a comforting quality. He was passionately working for Left unity and upheld an incorruptible analysis of current events. The disintegration of Eastern Europe and the absorption of China into the neo-liberal world market did not shake his deep commitment to the class struggle of the toiling masses. Though The Marxist Review had stopped circulation in 2004, he remained a communist through and through in his thoughts and his passions right to the very end.

Ajit Roy was born in erstwhile East Bengal in November 1920 in Dhaka district. His father was a widely respected schoolteacher and his mother brought up two daughters and two sons with an unusually secular and modern outlook. This liberal family atmosphere made Ajit Roy more open-minded later in life regarding the critique of patriarchy and the willingness to share in household chores, while his wife was holding down a modest government job.

Ajit Roy did his school and college education in Dhaka district and graduated in economics at Dhaka University. He also did his post-graduation in Economics, but did not appear for the final MA exams. He had joined the Communist Party in 1940 and became a full-fledged member in 1941. He was vice-president of the Provincial Students Federation during 1945. He became a party journalist, first as reporter and then as a member of the editorial board of the Bengali party organ, Swadhinata. Together with another comrade, he was sent to Pune in 1946 by the then general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), P C Joshi. This was to take the interview of M K Gandhi.

In 1949, Ajit Roy opposed the Left sectarian line under the leadership of

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did some work with the Indian Statistical Institute. When the party split in 1964 under the impact of conflict with China and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – CPI(M) – came into being, he quit the party and decided to work for Left unity from outside. With a small group of comrades he started publishing The Marxist Review, which carried on up to 2004, was run on subscriptions and meagre donations of dedicated readers, who also did not know how to make ends meet. The donations were always acknowledged in the journal.

Beacon for Young Activists

I remember Ajit Roy from the early 1970s onwards. He participated in some of the seminars organised by the Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society in Bangalore under the leadership of M M Thomas (MMT). He also interacted with groups at the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC) in Whitefield and made inputs in workshops of the Indian Social Institute, as well as in training programmes for social activists, organised by action groups in Tamil Nadu. This was a period of intense hope that “non-party political formations” would be able to make a difference in the political life of the country. Ajit Roy was free from illusions as far as transformation of society was concerned. Though intensely critical of the established Left parties, including the Marxist-Leninists, he did not ever encourage the lofty dreams of selfappointed activists. He believed in thorough organisational processes of the working classes. He was deeply concerned about the disconnect between organised and unorganised workers. He contributed substantially to the political formation of a young generation of that period in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and other parts, including Jharkhand.

Ajit Roy had a sharp critique of the Garibi Hatao slogans of Indira Gandhi, but also saw the limitations of Jayaprakash Narayan’s “total revolution”. He sharply saw the danger of rising communalism. When the Emergency was declared, he became a fierce critic and advocate of re-establishing constitutional democracy.

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Ajit Roy had become a good friend of MMT by that time. MMT wrote his cyclostyled circular letters, expressing a scathing critique of the “Taj Mahal policies” of the autocratic regime. These were later published in the classical booklet Response to Tyranny. The other communication we eagerly awaited was The Marxist Review. Both authors expected to be arrested any time, but this never happened. Their fierce opposition to the Twenty Point Programme and the realisation that it only streamlined capitalism but was far from aiming at real transformation, helped many young people of that period to form a lasting class perspective.

Ajit Roy made it a point in the mid-1970s to travel to Europe and to get into dialogue with people who had resisted fascism under Hitler. He went to Berlin and East Germany and to the Netherlands and made broad contacts. He also made friends in the Ecumenical Centre, Hendrik Kraemer House in Berlin, where Be Ruys had worked for the recognition of the German Democratic Republic as a socialist state and for wider dialogue with the countries of Eastern Europe. He also came into contact with the Christian Peace Conference. In the 1980s, Ajit Roy was a member of the jury of the Rome-based permanent People’s Tribunal, a successor organisation of the Bertrand Russell Tribunal. He was in touch with the Communist Parties in Italy, France, the Netherlands, East Germany, Denmark and Sweden. He also knew many neo-Marxists without party affiliation. He wrote innumerable articles and around 10 books, mostly in English and also in Bengali.

I attended many of the workshops in which he made inputs in the second half of the 1970s. He inspired many youngsters. He was very hard-working and demanded a serious application of the mind. He went on discussing till late in the night, when most people around him were caving in. He hated getting up early, but did it anyway when unavoidable. He adjusted to very rudimentary living conditions, but he expected discipline and attention to detail.

His international contacts widened his exposure and he took on board questions of ecology and participatory democracy more seriously than most other Marxists. He was very critical of nuclear energy and saw the connection with the arms race very clearly.

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Ajit Roy had a very thorough understanding of Marxist theory and praxis. He had read and understood Marx, Lenin and Gramsci with great attention to historical context and keenly reread them under the challenge of new situations. Alas, most of the time the challenge did not come from mass uprisings, but was caused by the complacency of established left forces. Ajit Roy was passionate and untiring in self-critically addressing the failures of the Indian Left to respond to the Indian situation in a truly dialectical and revolutionary spirit.

Upholding Marxism

He perceived the betrayal of the Marxist government in West Bengal in its compromise with multinational corporations (MNCs) and Indian capitalist forces long before Nandigram happened. In 1985, he addressed the question of Jyoti Basu’s wooing of MNCs and Indian big business houses (“Question of a Transitional Government in Marxist Terminology”, EPW, Vol XX, No 43, 26 October 1985). He contested the interpretation of Section 112 of the CPI(M) programme, which spoke of utilising opportunities of bringing Left governments into existence, which through their programmes could bring some relief to the working people and thus strengthen the process of building the Democratic Front. Ajit Roy was not an advocate for the progressing “immiseration” of the working class to serve the revolutionary cause. However, taking recourse to Lenin, he jumped into the fray to ask: “What distinguishes the dialectical transition from the un-dialectical transition? The leap. The contradiction. The interruption of gradualism. The unity (identity) of Being and non-Being” (V I Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow, Vol 38, p 284, emphasis added by AR). Ajit Roy goes on to say: “Without entering into a discussion of Marxist dialectics one can safely say that a transitional slogan is a slogan calling for a leap from day-to-day politics to the struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the existing power structure” (EPW, 26 October 1985, p 1820).

It was this sense of urgency, combined with meticulous attention to concrete conditions of space and time, which made Ajit Roy restless and consistently critical. He comes down devastatingly on the compromising attitude of Jyoti Basu, who does

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not want his state “to become an industrial desert”. He exposes the ruthless plunder of resources by the MNCs and the opportunism which abandons the class struggle and neglects the effort to sharpen the revolutionary grasp. He accuses Jyoti Basu and the CPI(M) of “philistine realism”.

In a similar vein, he also did not spare the CPI and his personal friend P C Joshi. In a critical review of P C Joshi’s book on Marxism and Social Revolution in India, and Other Essays (New Delhi, 1986), which he characterises as a “Siren Song for an Indian Marxism” (EPW, 8 August 1987), Ajit Roy sharply criticises the collaborationist policies of the CPI during the Emergency from July 1975 and the failure to take a relevant stand after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. He sees the root of the failure in lack of political will and asserts with Gramsci that “only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements which are necessary for realisation of this will” (Prison Notebooks, International Publishers, New York, 1973, p 171). Ajit Roy is disapproving of Joshi’s attempt to discard the basic tenets of socialism in order to adapt to the Indian conditions. He also is apprehensive of the attempt to find a compromise between Indian nationalism and Indian socialism, i e, Gandhism and Marxism. However, Ajit Roy clearly acknowledges the need to build the worker-peasant alliance, while at the same time fighting lumpenisation and fascist tendencies. He criticises Joshi for misreading Gramsci as giving primacy of ideological superstructure over economic structure and primacy of civil society (consensus) over political society (force).

Obviously, these kinds of contradictions are still very much with us in our society today, in a situation where “civil society” social movements are trying to challenge the State but are in constant danger to be co-opted by the ruling classes, while the ruling classes at the same time employ ideological pressure and are also turning to militaristic solutions under the pretext of “fighting terrorism”. In these confusing times of postmodern identity politics and so-called “post-colonialism” (while we are reeling under neocolonial onslaught) Ajit Roy’s unabashed effort to uphold Marxism as an integral world view which is unreservedly universal, appears like a whiff

COMMENTARY

of fresh air from a period which the Left has largely abandoned at its own peril. Ajit Roy rejects a national or a temporal version in the form of “Indian Marxism” as uncalled for. He is at the same time thoroughly internationalist and situation specific. He castigates the Indian Left for lack of mass mobilisation and for its compromising position on “national democratic revolution”.

‘Optimism of the Will’

Very impressively, Ajit Roy affirmed Gramsci’s Optimism of the Will even in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in a review of Randhir Singh’s book Of Marxism and Indian Politics (EPW, 2 June 1990).

Ajit Roy’s tenacity in bringing out The Marxist Review under most difficult conditions and his drive to address the Indian Left of different shades and to interact with activists of mass organisations, had clearly to do with this optimism of the will, which was like an inspiring contagion for those who knew him and loved him. There was always space for debate and disagreement based on mutual respect. He knew that the revolutionary task is enormous but never shunned to face it and to draw others into the orbit of his critical thinking.

He suffered serious health setbacks in recent years. Nalini Nayak and I used to visit him and his family, when we came

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through Kolkata on our way to or from Nagaland. He had become very patient and listened to music a lot.

Today, we have probably come somewhat closer to his ideal of Left unity, as alliance building is trying to find new ways. At the same time, people’s struggles are facing increasing repression. Both these features can at present be observed in the anti-POSCO struggle. The question of how to form an effective organisational structure for transformation remains acutely relevant. We will keep in mind the motto of the Marxist Review: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is to change it” (Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach).

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november 19, 2011 vol xlvI no 47

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