“For India with its vastness and diversity, there is only one solution possible: Anarchist, decentralised, economic and practical socialism alone will avoid the different quarrels for political power – not any of the modern ‘new-fangled’ theories wherein all show that the State is identical with the society and therefore with socialism.” [Emphasis added]
M.P.T. Acharya, “What is Socialism?” (1928)
Mandayam Prativadi Bhayankaram Tirumal ‘M.P.T.’ Acharya (1887-1954) was India’s most important but least remembered anarchist activist and theoretician in the first half of the 20th century. As a political movement, anarchism had emerged out of debates between Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin in the First International in the 1860s and soon became a widespread left-wing movement across the colonial world – except for India – in the long 19th century. Emphasising individual liberty, mutual aid, and revolutionary communism, anarchists rejected authoritarianism, imperialism, borders, prisons, parliamentarian politics, and the centralisation of power in the state, among other things. To recover Acharya’s life and anarchist thoughts is to remember the formulation of anticolonial thought and struggles against totalitarian oppression – be it colonialism, Bolshevism, nationalism, or fascism – struggles that reverberate across India and the world today.
From late 1922, when he returned to Europe and made a base in Berlin, and for the next three decades from, from Berlin and Bombay, Acharya agitated for the politics and philosophy of anarchism as the only way forward for India – colonial India and post-colonial India – to obtain any meaningful sense of freedom. At a time when revolutionary politics was dominated by nationalism and communism, Acharya’s anarchist ideas stood out against these currents, but his contributions to libertarian socialist thought in India and the world remain largely forgotten.
Acharya was born in Madras in 1887 and attended the Hindu High School in Triplicane, where V.S. Srinivasa Sastri was headmaster at the time. By the age of 20, he had become involved in the Swadeshi movement in India and fled the country in late 1908. Spending the next decade in exile amongst anti-colonial, nationalist and socialist networks across Europe, the Middle East, and North America, Acharya ended up in Russia in 1919 during the revolutionary years. Joining a mission to Afghanistan led by Mahendra Pratap, Yakov Suritz, and Igor Reisner, in Kabul he abandoned Pratap’s nationalist agenda and instead set up the Indian Revolutionary Association (IRA) – comprising revolutionary pan-Islamists, nationalists, proto-communists, and anarchists – with Abdur Rabb. As a delegate of the IRA, Acharya attended the Second Congress of the Communist International in July-August 1920 in Petrograd and Moscow and here met M.N. Roy and Abani Mukherji for the first time.
Alongside Roy, Mukherji, Mohamed Shafique, and Mohamed Ali, Acharya was one of the co-founders of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Tashkent in October 1920. However, Acharya soon fell out with Roy – principally over the issue of membership of both the IRA and the CPI (Roy did not allow membership of other revolutionary bodies) and the unwillingness to submit India’s struggle for independence to the Comintern – and he was expelled from the CPI in January 1921. In Moscow, Acharya instead associated with well-known anarchists such as Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Rudolf Rocker, and Milly Rocker, and started working for the American Relief Administration alongside his friend M.A. Faruqui and the Russian anarchist Abba Gordin. By then, Acharya had embraced anarchism. Sometime in 1922, he met and married Magda Nachman, a talented Russian artist. Increasingly critical of the oppressive Bolshevik regime, Acharya’s presence in Moscow was no longer tolerated by the communists.
In mid-November 1922, Acharya and Nachman fled Moscow and arrived in Berlin, where Acharya soon attended the founding meeting of the anarcho-syndicalist International Working Men’s Association (IWMA). Throughout the next few years, Acharya corresponded frequently with prominent anarchists such as Alexander Berkman, Tom Keell, Augustin Souchy, Guy Aldred, and E. Armand, he started sending anarchist literature to India to influence labour and left-wing organisations, and he wrote extensively for international anarchist publications such as Der Syndikalist, De Arbeider, IWMA Press Service, L’en dehors, Acción Social Obrera and Road to Freedom. In these publications, he wrote about labour and independence struggles in India, how anarchism was the only way forward to avoid colonialism and state-led dictatorship, and the necessity of combating communism in India.
At the same time, he still associated with other Indians in Berlin such as Virendranath Chattopadhyaya and A.C.N. Nambiar, attended meetings in the Hindusthan Association of Central Europe, was briefly involved in the League against Imperialism, and wrote about anarchist politics for Indian periodicals such as Forward, The Mahratta, The People and The Bombay Chronicle, being the Berlin correspondent for the latter newspaper. In an article in The People from 1928, he argued:
“For India with its vastness and diversity, there is only one solution possible: Anarchist, decentralised, economic and practical socialism alone will avoid the different quarrels for political power – not any of the modern ‘new-fangled’ theories wherein all show that the State is identical with the society and therefore with socialism.”
In doing so, he tried to bring the question of anarchism into India’s struggle for independence. However, left-wing leaders such as C.R. Das, M. Singaravelu, and J.P. Begerhotta shunned Acharya’s anarchist thoughts and followed the communist line.
In 1927, at the invitation of his old friend Faruqui and the Dutch anarchists Albert de Jong and Arthur Müller-Lehning, Acharya joined the International Anti-Militarist Bureau and the International Antimilitarist Commission, and he wrote frequently on issues of anti-imperialism and anti-militarism for these two organisations’ monthly Press Services.
As a committed anarchist and anti-militarist, Acharya was drawn to but remained critical of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violence campaign underway in India. Inspired by Gandhi’s philosophy, but drawing on anarchist ideas of mutual aid, Acharya’s seminal work Principles of Non-Violent Economics (1947) had originally been published as ‘Les Trusts et la Démocratie’ in the French anarchist periodical L’en dehors in 1928, but still found resonance when it was re-printed in independent India.
Challenging communist thinking, Acharya argued for local, autonomous communes, decentralised society, and diffused democracy:
“Monopolies – state, private, or combined – can function only at the expense of the majority of members of the society. In order to lessen distress of humanity, both in peace and war, the sole remedy lies in abolishing these three systems and not in experimenting with them and tolerating them.”
Witnessing the rise of Nazism in Germany in the early 1930s, Acharya and Nachman had to flee Berlin. Finally granted a passport after several years of applying, with the help of Subhas Chandra Bose, they fled to Switzerland in early 1934, staying with Nachman’s family in Zürich, and throughout the next year lived between Zürich and Paris. In late March 1935, Acharya finally left Europe, never to return, and arrived in Bombay in early April, where Nachman joined him a year later.
Cut off from the international anarchist movement when the Second World War broke out in 1939, shortly after the end of the war Acharya re-connected with the global anarchist environment and joined the International Institute of Sociology (IIS) in Bombay, a libertarian organisation set up by Ranchoddas Bhavan Lotvala, whom Acharya had met in Berlin. Throughout the next few years, as the IIS changed its name to the Libertarian Socialist Institute (LSI) due to Acharya’s anarchist influences, the LSI reached out to global anarchist circles for contributions to their project, started a periodical called The Libertarian Socialist, and set up an anarchist library, and all the while Acharya again contributed articles to international anarchist publications such as Freedom, Tierra y Libertad, Etudes Anarchistes, Contre-Courant, The Word, and Die Freie Gesellschaft. In these periodicals, Acharya criticised the newly independent Indian state for continuing the oppression of former colonial rulers – workers had not gained freedom, he believed – and took leaders to task for abandoning Gandhian non-violence.
In 1948, when the international anarchist movement reconvened through the Commission for International Anarchist Relations, Acharya was the point of contact for India, alongside D.N. Wanchoo from Lucknow, the son of one of his friends. In the early 1950s, the two of them tried to start a new anarchist publication in Bombay called The Crucible, reaching out to the international anarchist community for contributions, but after Nachman’s untimely death in February 1951 and for want of money, the project was abandoned. Instead, Acharya wrote ‘anarchistically’, as he said to the Russian American anarchist Boris Yelensky, to periodicals such as Times of India, Thought, and Economic Weekly, and most frequently to Kaiser-i-Hind and Harijan, whose editor, K.G. Mashruwala, also embraced anarchism before his death in 1952.
Diagnosed with tuberculosis in early 1948, Acharya’s last years were plagued by starvation and illness, and in mid-March 1954, he dragged himself to the Bhatia Hospital in Bombay, where he died on March 20, 1954. With his death, the prospect of an anarchist movement in India also died.
A unique figure in the international anarchist movement and in India’s freedom struggle, Acharya left behind a substantial body of work – more than two hundred articles on anarchism – but remains a forgotten figure. He deserves to be remembered not only for his tireless agitation for anarchism in India, but also for his commitment to, in the words of Harijan editor Maganbhai P. Desai, “a free and decentralised social order based on complete liberty, equality, and the dignity of true human personality”.
Ole Birk Laursen is an Affiliated Research Fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies at Leiden University, Netherlands and is currently writing a biography of M.P.T. Acharya.