MN Roy: brief outline of life-events and thoughts – Part 18
Western Women in leftist and national movements (4)
Ellen Gottschalk (1904-1960)
Roy fell sick, and escaped from Stalin’s Russia even while the Ninth Plenum of the ECCI was in session at Moscow, during February- March 1928. He slipped into Berlin in March 1928; and, lived there up to 1930. Soon after coming to Berlin, Roy revived his contacts with the Communist Party Opposition (KPO) and started contributing articles to Thalheimer’s journal Gegen den Storm (Against the Storm) criticizing the foreign policy of the Soviet Union; which meant criticizing of Stalin. And that angered the Stalin group; and, Roy was promptly expelled from the International Communist Party. Although he was officially expelled from the Party, Roy continued to believe and profess communism.
By 1928, Roy and Evelyn Trent had been separated over some serious differences that developed between them. Roy was living alone during his early days in Berlin. During those lonely days, Roy developed relations with a few women communists. It is said, Roy had been close to Clara Zetkin , the German Communist and feminist who was active in International Women’s Secretariat and from 1921-1925 and edited its papers. Thereafter, it is said, Roy lived- in with a German woman Louise Geissler (1899-1973), whom he knew from his earlier Comintern days. She had been a staff member in the Comintern (Communist International) from 1926 and had accompanied Roy on his Comintern Mission to China in 1927. Geissler had joined the Spartacus Bund, the militant communist Group of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht. And after its defeat, she joined the German Communist Party. Now, in Berlin, Geissler was helping Roy in his political work; and, was his ‘devoted companion’. During 1929, they shared an apartment with Munster-berg the communist leader.
Roy had in the mean time developed friendship with another German communist woman Ellen Gottschalk (1903-1960). With Ellen, Roy truly grew very intimate.
Ellen Gottschalk was born in Paris to a French Jewish family. She went to school in Cologne, in Germany close to its border with Belgium. At Cologne, the cultural center of Rhineland region embracing the land on either bank of the River Rhine, Ellen took lessons in music and singing; and excelled in both. She had her further education in Germany. It is said; Ellen translated James Frazier’s Golden Bough into German. The family again returned to France. But, the events in France during the First World War aroused her anger against the social injustice, militarization and what she called the ‘absurdity of hostile patriotism’. Ellen Gottschalk ran away from home in 1923.
In Berlin she was actively involved in radical politics; working, from 1925, for the Peasant International established by Comintern. She served for some time as secretary of the European Peasants’ Council and was the editor of its bulletin. Later she joined the German Communist Party for a year (1927-1928), during the Weimar Republic.
[The period of (1927-28) was virtually the tail-end of the quiet period in Europe, which came about as one of the effects of the Treaty of Versailles, which had significantly reduced the power of Germany. By then, the socialist and communist unrest was brewing beneath the surface. The unrest was caused mainly by unemployment coupled with hyperinflation, an enormous economic inflation that caused the German currency’s value to plummet down and down below (n 1919, one loaf of bread cost 1 mark; by 1923, the same loaf of bread cost 100 billion marks) . But, the government simply kept printing more and more banknotes to pay the bills. In 1923, strikes were called, and passive resistance was encouraged. These strikes lasted eight months, further damaging the economy and the social life.
The position improved after 1923 when Gustav Stresemann took over as the Foreign Minister and eased the economic and political stress in Germany under The Dawes Plan. But, sadly, the stability and recovery of the Stresemann Era collapsed following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and start of the Depression.
With the Great Depression, things went from bad to worse in Germany : The US demanded its loans back; but, Germany could not pay. And by 1932 , millions became homeless, unemployed and dependent on charity to survive. Following which the Weimar Republic became extremely unpopular and seemed incapable of pulling Germany out of the Depression. That made room for the leftwing and rightwing extremist parties like the Communist and Nazi Party to gather support of the suffering masses ; and , build their strength. And that led to Hitler seizeing power in Germany and bringing an end to the Weimar Republic in 1933 .]
It was during 1927-28, the tail-end of moderate-period of the Weimer Republic that Ellen Gottschalk came in contact with many Communist Intellectuals as also the Opposition Communists and Trotskyists who disagreed with Comintern policies. She thereafter joined the dissident Trotskyites and then the German Opposition Communist Thalheimer Brandler group.
Ellen Gottschalk and M N Roy first met in 1928 in the German Opposition Communist circles in Berlin. Roy, by then, had become a leading member of the German Communist Party Opposition. They became very close thereafter. ‘I was attracted to him by his remarkable intellectual capacity’ Ellen later said.
MN Roy had been expelled from the Comintern in 1929 for his articles criticizing Soviet foreign policy . By 1930 , he decided to return to India. After being in India for about six months , living incognito, Roy was arrested in July 1931, tried for several conspiracy cases; and sentenced to twelve years’ of imprisonment.
Ellen did not give up on Roy even while he was thousands of miles away in India and in jail. What she did for Roy thereafter is a remarkable saga of self-less love and dedication. There is hardly a parallel to her single-minded devotion and determination to take care of her lover even while he was incarcerated in a distant land that was totally strange to her.
After the Nazi influence began to spread in Germany, she fled to France. Her stay in France during that period was politically safe. Ellen made a precarious living as a secretary; and yet tried her utmost to secure release of Roy.
While in France, Ellen Gottschalk came in contact with such intellectuals as Andre Malraux, Aurther Koestler, Henri Barbusse and Paul Robeson among others. She urged them as also Romain Rolland, Staffard Cripps and Albert Einstein to intervene on behalf of Roy. Then she travelled to Britain to see the Labor Party leaders and to discuss with Jawaharlal Nehru who was a member of the Roy Defense Committee. She also organized the international letter-writing campaign demanding the early release of M N Roy. Jawaharlal Nehru, Alfred Einstein, Roger Baldwin and Fenner Brockway, among others, responded to Gottschalk’s request and sent letters of concern to British authorities. Due to the combined efforts and appeals of many eminent persons, Roy’s sentence was reduced from twelve to six years, with ‘Class B’ prisoner status.
In France , Ellen Gottschalk made a living by doing number of secretarial jobs. She helped Franco–Soviet Friendship Groups; and was an organizer of the 1935 International Conference on Defense of Culture held in Paris. During 1935-1936, Wilhelm “Willi” Münzenberg, a communist political activist who at that time had taken shelter in France and had become a leader of the German émigré anti-fascism and anti-Stalinist community gave Ellen work organizing an association for German writers who had taken refuge in Paris.
While Roy was in prison, Ellen Gottschalk and Roy’s friends in Germany, kept providing him with books and journals which he wanted to read. During jail days M N Roy corresponded with some political leaders and intellectuals. Ellen helped him greatly in this aspect.
Thanks to the efforts of Ellen Gottschalk, Roy , in prison, was allowed to receive packages of books from friends in order to carry on his studies and writing .The books he received over the six years of his imprisonment were mostly sent from friends in Paris and New York who were members of the German Party of Opposition Communists. By November 1936, a total of 157 books had reached him.
At the time Roy returned to India, he was still a communist, though he had officially been expelled from the Comintern. The years in jail gave him time for study and reflection. Roy used his prison years for writing a re-examination and re-formulation of Marxism to which he had been committed since 1919.
During the jail days, M.N. Roy produced extensively political, philosophical and social criticism. The reflections, which Roy wrote down in jail, grew over a period of five years into nine thick volumes (approximately over 3000 lined foolscap-size pages). The ‘Prison Manuscripts‘ have not so far been published in their totality, and are currently preserved in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Archives in New Delhi. However, selected portions from the manuscript were published as separate books in the 1930s and the 1940s.
Besides his writings Roy spent time extensively, on the works such as Feuerbach’s Wesen Des Christentums that he wanted to apply to the Indian situations.
The published books based on Roy’s Prison handwritten notebooks include Materialism (1934); Science and Superstition (1940); Heresies of the 20th century (1939); Fascism (1938); Historical Role of Islam (1939); Ideal of Indian womanhood (1941) ; Science and Philosophy (1947) and India’s Message (1950) . His monumental work “The Philosophical consequences of Modern Science” is an outstanding contribution to the fields of philosophy and science.
During the period from 11 August 1931 to November 1936, Roy wrote a series of letters to Ellen Gottschalk. Roy’s letters to Gottschalk, which she collected and made available for publication, in book form, as Letters from Jail (1943).
The intimacy that connected M N Roy and Ellen Gottschalk was documented in a six-year letter correspondence between the two. Apart from his love towards Ellen, the letters reveal his emotional state, his reflections on life, and his ways of thinking and understanding the philosophy behind cultural, social and political aspects of human existence. The Letters from Jail are of great literary merit in their own right.
Roy’s letters were censored; much of the emotionally-charged information about Roy’s physical well-being of rotten teeth, cardiac dilatation and digestive disturbances was excised by the British prison officers.
In the course of the six -year correspondence, Roy wrote about the clothes he wore, the books he read, and the work he did. He deflected Ellen’s concerns about his physical and mental well-being. He expressed fondness for friends, and asked repeatedly about common acquaintances, especially the German communist leaders Heinz Brandler and August Thalheimer. ‘I am glad to know that our family [the international organization of Opposition Communists] remains so firm and optimistic. I eagerly look out for the day when I shall again have the pleasure of being with those good old friends, maybe in this country.
Roy fondly recalled his old days in Europe : : ‘You are loathing beautiful Berlin, and I am homesick for it. Really, I would like to be back in Europe. When? I am afraid it will never be.’ Roy harked back to ‘those glorious days when we did nothing but laugh’.
The letters reveal the emotional strains of lonesome suffering. They express his longing for the beloved, ‘I have a feeling of distress while writing these letters. I send them off in the void, never knowing whether they will reach the destination’; ‘I anxiously wait for your monthly letters’. Later, again he wrote, ‘I am really homesick, and am eagerly looking out for the day when we shall celebrate a grand reunion.
At the same time, Roy tells Ellen not to lose heart: ‘we must take things as they come, and hope for better days’. But, towards the end of the six years, just before his release, the darkest tones appear in his letters to Ellen: ‘I am tired of this world. It appears to be doomed to destruction or a possible rebirth after a protracted period of torture and torment’.
Kris Manjapra who in his very sensitive writing The impossible intimacies of M N Roy talks of the intimacy between Roy and Ellen, says:
M N Roy’s life bore the stress marks of intimacies that were strange for his time. His intense private and professional relationship with Ellen Gottschalk, a German Jewish communist radical, was just one expression of the globe-straddling intimacies that disrupted the normative discourse of race, nation and colonial difference.
After Roy’s release from jail in 1936, Ellen Gottschalk joined Roy in Bombay in March 1937. They were married in the same month and went to live in Dehra Dun. Subsequently, Ellen Roy played an important role in Roy’s life, and cooperated in all of his endeavours. Soon after they settled in Dehra Dun, they started a journal Independent India . The name was changed to The Radical Humanist in 1949.They also published Roy’s letter to Ellen written from jail as Letters From Jail during 1943.
In December 1940, Roy and his followers left Indian National Congress owing to differences with the Congress leadership on the role of India in the Second World War. Thereafter, Roy along with Ellen formed the Radical Democratic Party . This signaled the beginning of the last phase of Roy’s life in which he developed his philosophy of new humanism.
Disillusioned with both bourgeois democracy and communism, Roy devoted the later years of his life to the formulation of an alternative philosophy which he called Radical Humanism and of which he wrote a detailed exposition in Reason, Romanticism and Revolution. Ellen was very much a part of that movement and participated in it actively. Roy and Ellen started the Indian Radical Humanist Movement and set up the Indian Renaissance Institute (1946) for ‘spreading the spirit of Enlightenment, Humanism and the Search for Truth’.
MN Roy died in 1954; Ellen Roy became the center of the movement and carried forward his work until her death in 1960.
Ellen headed the Indian Renaissance Institute, from its foundation in 1946 until her death. After her husband passed away Ellen Roy edited the magazine Radical Humanist. She also revived the Annual study camps that were held for rationalists and radical humanists from all over the country.
Later , Ellen created the MN Roy Archives. She spread the message of radical humanism by conducting study camps, by travelling around India and speaking to groups. In 1955 she went abroad to establish stronger ties with rationalists and humanitarians all over Europe but especially with International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).
From 1957-58 Ellen was the p[resident of the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) and organized several National Council Meetings.
Ellen corresponded with Evelyn Trent and in 1958 referred to ‘the experience we both have had with researchers from Berkley’. However, she recommended Sibnarayan Ray to Evelyn as a researcher of MN Roy’s life.
Neither Evelyn Trent not Agnes Smedley (both of whom were associated with Roy and his passion for India’s freedom) visited India. Ellen Roy, on the other hand, lived in India for about twenty-three years, from 1937 to till her death in 1960.
After M N Roy’s death in 1954, Ellen Roy continued to run her organization from Dehra Dun. She was murdered under mysterious circumstances at Dehra Dun during 1960 , apparently by a local man long known to both her and M N Roy.
All her life in India, Ellen was much admired and loved by her associates and followers. Almost all the writings on Roy sate that in marrying Ellen Gottschalk, “Roy found not only a loving wife but also an intelligent helper and close collaborator”. That is very true.
Sibanarayan Ray (M N Roy’s biographer) writes about Ellen Roy :
“ to some ( in India) she was important, because she was close to Roy and because in a self-effacing way she dedicated herself completely to Roy’s work. To others, she was a magnificent person in her own right, with gifts, perceptions and interests which were in their combination almost as rich as those of her more illustrious husband.”
Ellen Roy’s views on India were not romantic or idealized. Ellen had a realistic approach to India. She travelled around India, speaking to varied groups of people. She wrote in 1935: “I am not one of those who have gone East and come back with a message of a mystic light from Orient”.
Her internationalism came not only from socialism but from her life experiences as well.
“When you are born in one country and your mother is from another country and your father is from yet another country , and endowed with citizenship of some other country you are a foreigner in every country you have grown up a, studied and worked. And, yet you feel at home in all of those countries. Add to that when you marry an alien from a different continent – you become at home there too. You learn to see good and bad in all countries and people” (Roy: 1929; 374)
While Ellen Roy could see the ‘good and the bad’ because she lived in India for about twenty-three years , the others such as Evelyn Roy , Agnes Smedley and other wives and working partners of the Indian revolutionaries were unable to work and live in India for any length of time. They however contributed to the movement from abroad.
Ellen Roy was truly a remarkable person who lived a highly eventful life guided by her principles and by the love of her life. Her commitment to Roy and through him to the cause of India is amazing. Even after the death of her husband, she continued to stay in India and work for the cause that was close to his heart.
It is sad that one who loved India so dearly is now totally forgotten by the Indians.
Sources and References
The White Woman’s Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia During British Rule by Kumari Jayewardene
The impossible intimacies of M N Roy by Kris Manjapra