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Militarism in Asia: The Obligations of European Workers – Page 2 – Barricade

Militarism in Asia: The Obligations of European Workers

 


translator’s note:1 Mandayam Prativadi Bhayankaram Tirumal Acharya (1887–1954) was an Indian freedom fighter, anticolonial activist, anarchist, and one of the founders of the Communist Party of India. He participated in revolutionary activities across three continents with the aim of furthering India’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule.

After being persecuted by the British colonial government for his involvement in the publication of revolutionary literature, Acharya went into exile, first in the French colonial enclave of Pondicherry and then in Europe, traveling between Lisbon, Paris, Berlin, Munich, and Istanbul (then Constantinople). Moving from Europe to the United States, Acharya traveled first to New York, then to San Francisco, where he joined the anticolonial Ghadar Party (the Hindustan Association of the Pacific Coast) and produced translations of Party texts for the Tamil edition of its official publication, the Hindustan Ghadar.2 With the outbreak of WWI, he returned to Europe, where he was involved in the so-called Hindu-German Conspiracy,3 spent two years in Stockholm, and was among the first Indian delegation to meet Lenin in 1919. Though a co-founder of the Communist Party of India in Tashkent in October 1920, Acharya never embraced communism and instead turned to anarchism and published extensively in several languages—English, Spanish, German, Dutch, and French—on anarchism, pacifism, European imperialism, and the freedom struggle in India.

This article was published in Der Syndikalist, the journal of the German anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the Freie Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands, in 1930. Acharya theorizes what he sees as the central function of internationalism in socialism and the workers’ struggle during a period of global European dominance and offers a succinct analysis of the role that European workers must play in the overthrow of colonialism, capitalism, and militarism. Acharya argues that European workers need to understand that they have more to gain by allying with their colonized fellow-workers and farmers than from compromises with European capitalists. As a consequence, he calls on them to enact a general strike in defense of both their own interests and those of the colonized. In a particularly accurate and terrifying prediction of the state of Europe a decade before Germany’s invasion of Poland, he argues that the same forces behind colonial militarism were at risk of “plunging” the world into “another bloodbath.” Following the rise of the Nazis, Acharya and his Russian-Jewish wife, the painter Magda Nachman, were forced to leave for India in 1935, where Acharya lived until his death in 1954 in Bombay.

It is Acharya’s avowed anarchism that sets him apart from other South Asian anticolonialists of his time. Until recently, the role of anarchism in South Asian anticolonialism has remained fairly under-researched, with the scholarship focusing largely on M.K. Gandhi’s Tolstoyan anarchist tendencies and the occasional discussion of Bhagat Singh.4 However, recent studies, such as Maia Ramnath’s book Decolonizing Anarchism: An Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle, have begun to solicit greater interest in South Asian anarchism.5

As a translator, one of the glaring questions I was faced with was that of the provenance of this text. How fluent was Acharya really in the various languages that he published in—from Dutch and French to German and Tamil? Did he have assistance in writing this and other articles of his? And if so, what portion of the thoughts and arguments contained in them are his alone and what portion stem from his interlocutors and comrades at organizations like the Freie Arbeiter-Union Deutschlands? Acharya clearly wrote with a multilingual and global readership of leftists, anticolonial nationalists, communists, and anarchists in mind. A salient example of this is an article Acharya wrote for Hippolyte Havel’s New York City–based anarchist journal Road to Freedom (which was a successor publication to Emma Goldman’s own Mother Earth). That article was first published for an Anglophone audience in April 1928 as “Mother India,” but then appeared the following month in the German anarcho-syndicalist journal Die Internationale under the title “Der Antimilitarismus in Indien.” This is, arguably, the equivalent of a simultaneous publication in the era of the telegraph, and it is something that occurred often with Acharya’s articles. Many of the periodicals Acharya published in, such as Der Syndikalist (Germany), Road to Freedom (United States), La Voix du Travail (France), and De Syndicalist (Netherlands), were affiliated with the International Workingmen’s Association, or the First International. When an article appeared in one of these publications, editors of the others would translate and republish them in other venues—sometimes at the request of Acharya himself. This article, “Militarism in Asia,” appears to have only been published by Der Syndikalist.

A central preoccupation of academic fields such as postcolonial studies and world-systems theory has been the question of what is termed “the international division of labor.” It describes the manner in which, during and in the wake of the global spread of European colonialism, production and labor have come to be divided and stratified between the metropolitan and colonial countries (the “core and peripheral zones” in the language of world-systems theory,6 or the First and Third Worlds in the parlance of the Cold War). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak glosses the term as follows:

The contemporary international division of labor is a displacement of the divided field of nineteenth-century territorial imperialism. Put in the abstractions of capital logic, in the wake of industrial capitalism and mercantile conquest, a group of countries, generally first-world, were in the position of investing capital; another group, generally third-world, provided the field for investment, both through the subordinate indigenous capitalists and through their ill-protected and shifting labor force.7

However, for world-systems analysis, “core-periphery is a relational concept, not a pair of terms that are reified, that is, have separate essential meanings.”8 Thus, to account for the shift in capitalist relations in the period after formal decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, which has been marked by the rise of new centers of capital accumulation in East and Southeast Asia, scholars now often write of the “new international division of labor.”9

Acharya offers us a way to think about the role of workers and unions on the core or dominant side of the (new) international division of labor in organizing against capitalist exploitation, along with the militarism that accompanies it. He dramatizes the global situation of the interwar period when colonized peoples across Asia and Africa were engaged in full-blown liberation struggles against European colonialism while “politically confused” European workers at best did nothing to prevent market and state forces in their countries from continuing to violently occupy and economically exploit the colonized countries and at worst actively abetted this oppression by producing armaments for the colonial powers and compromising with them by accepting wage reduction.

Acharya ends his article with an unambiguous plaidoyer to British and European workers to act, not in the interests of their colonized comrades, but in fact in their very own interests, which, if they endeavored to see clearly, coincide with those of the colonized on the other side of the international division of labor—and the other side of the world. European workers, Acharya says, must enact a general strike and disrupt the production of arms that enables their countries to subjugate the colonized countries and their workers.

“Militarism in Asia” offers a glimpse into the political thought of an anticolonial revolutionary from the colonized world, one who had found his way to the imperial centers of Europe, Russia, and the United States. Acharya was able to offer European left-wing politics and labor organizing a wider perspective on their own local struggles against capitalism and on the implications of those struggles for workers elsewhere, i.e. on the disadvantaged side of the international division of labor, by situating them within a global framework.

Acharya’s argument about the necessity for European workers to strike in solidarity with workers in the colonized world, and that their doing so would mean acting in their own interests, is a view that was held by other Indian anticolonialists as well. For instance, in her discussion of Shapurji Saklatvala in Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, Priyamvada Gopal argues that “Saklatvala’s signature project” was to “illuminat[e] the workings of empire as inextricably tied to the workings of capitalism, thus tying together the fates of all those at the mercy of the ‘spread of the cult of private enterprise’,” and that, for Saklatvala,

imperialism was not simply about forcing nations under foreign subjugation and thus violating British values—though it was that too—but also about putting in place systemic inequalities and exploitation that rebounded as damagingly on British workers as on colonial subjects. From this perspective, anti-imperialism—a rejection of the economic workings of empire—was as essential to the health of British society as it was to colonized ones.10

Acharya, it must be said, was correct in his diagnosis of European labor politics and its relationship with empire at the time. When Indians began burning clothes produced in Britain and boycotting British goods at the height of the Swadeshi movement,11 some in the British Labour Party and on the British Left interpreted these actions not as anticolonial protest, but rather as the protection of Indian bourgeois interests and, ironically, deployed a rhetoric of international labor solidarity to discourage Indians from their boycott.12

We are currently witnessing a historical moment marked by the Indian farmers’ protests of 2020–21, which have been called “the single largest protest in human history.”13 Farmers, primarily from the agricultural states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, are striking against three “pro-corporate” farm laws, which would deregulate the agricultural sector, jeopardizing the livelihoods of farmers with small land-holdings. In a moment when an unprecedented number of farmers are actually enacting a general strike (Bharat Bandh, lit. “close” or “shut down” India), it is worth pausing over what Acharya has to say about an earlier moment of farmers’ revolts. For him, the Satyagraha farmer revolts led by Gandhi in the first half of the twentieth century were a “a prototypically antimilitarist movement, which ought to be emulated by the rest of the Eastern peasantries.” Just as he was calling on European workers to enact a general strike in their home countries in support of antimilitarism, he saw immense potential in a parallel strike by farmers in the colonized world. Had he lived to witness the “largest organized strike in human history,” he would undoubtedly have seen great emancipatory potential in it.14

Acharya is an understudied figure in South Asian intellectual history. There exists no comprehensive biography of his life, nor were many of his essays available in print until very recently, when Ole Birk Laursen published a collection of his work under the title, We Are Anarchists: Essays on Anarchism, Pacifism, and the Indian Independence Movement, 1923–1953. Laursen, as noted above, is also in the process of writing a biography of Acharya, which is bound to do an immense service to the study of South Asian intellectual and political history. For my part, I hope for this translation to contribute, however slightly, to the continuing study of M.P.T. Acharya, South Asian anticolonialism, and the global intellectual history of antiauthoritarian political thought.

 

  1. I am indebted to Ole Birk Laursen for his corrections and feedback on this Introduction.
  2. Cf. Ole Birk Laursen. 2019. “M.P.T. Acharya: A Revolutionary, an Agitator, a Writer.” In Ole Birk Laursen, ed. We Are Anarchists: Essays on Anarchism, Pacifism, and the Indian Independence Movement, 1923–1953. Chico, CA: AK Press.
  3. The so-called Hindu-German Conspiracy was a plan by Indian anticolonialists based in the United States to overthrow British rule in India. Its locus was the Ghadar Party, which was headquartered in San Francisco. For a comprehensive study of the Ghadar Party as a case of global anitcolonial radicalism, see: Maia Ramnath. 2019. Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  4. Cf. J. Daniel Elam, “The Arch Priestess of Anarchy Visits Lahore: Violence, Love, and the Worldliness of Revolutionary Texts” (2013). In Postcolonial Studies, 16.2: 140-54.
  5. For a discussion of the Ghadar Party’s anarchism, see Harjot Oberoi, “Ghadar Movement and Its Anarchist Genealogy” (2009) in Economic and Political Weekly, 44.50: 40-6.
  6. Immanuel Wallerstein. 2004. World-systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 17.
  7. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. 2010 [1985]. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Rosalind C. Morris, ed. Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York: Columbia University Press, 41.
  8. Ibid. Wallerstein.
  9. cf. Pheng Cheah. 2010. “Biopower and the New International Division of Reproductive Labor.” In Rosalind C. Morris, ed. Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea. New York: Columbia University Press, 179–212; Étienne Cantin. 2010. “New International Division of Labor.” In Barney Warf, ed. Encyclopedia of Geography. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE
  10. Priyamvada Gopal. 2019. Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent. London: Verso, 224.
  11. Swadesh is a compound of two Sanskrit words, self (swa) and country (desh) and can be glossed as “of one’s own country.” For a helpful discussion of the Swadeshi movement, see Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908 (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2011) and Dilip Menon, “The Many Spaces and Times of Swadeshi” (2012) in Economic and Political Weekly, 47.42: 44–52.
  12. Cf. Nicholas Owen. 2007. The British Left and India. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  13. Nitish Pahwa, “India Just Had the Biggest Protest in World History.” Slate. Dec. 9, 2020. <https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/12/india-farmer-protests-modi.html>
  14.  Iris Kim, “US should pay attention to India farmer strike, largest protest ever.” Business Insider. Jan. 2, 2021. <https://www.businessinsider.com/indian-farmer-strike-largest-protest-history-us-world-pay-attention-2020-12>