Best remembered as the partner of Indian revolutionary M. N. Roy, Evelyn Trent deserves to be recognized as a major figure in her own right. The Californian activist was a pioneering anti-colonial feminist who helped initiate India’s communist movement.

Rebels hold rifles in Revolutionary Mexico, where Evelyn Trent helped found the Mexican Communist Party. (Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

In the history of the US left, Evelyn Trent (1892–1970) is a shamefully neglected figure. If known at all, she is merely remembered as the American wife of the dashing, globe-trotting Indian anti-colonial revolutionary M. N. Roy.

Active at a critical conjuncture in the 1920s, Trent helped found the communist parties of Mexico and India. She trained Indian anti-colonial militants in Soviet Central Asia and was an inaugural instructor at the University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow. She also participated in the international communist women’s movement.

Though she was not a prolific writer, what little she did write was smuggled into colonial India and widely circulated in India’s early communist underground. Yet despite her accomplishments, M. N. Roy made no mention of Trent in his well-known, stylistically masterful Memoirs. Roy’s erasure of Trent infuriated his communist contemporaries in India, who remembered her as one of the founders of their mass movement.

Unfortunately, western scholars and activists, overly fascinated by Roy’s cosmopolitanism and intellectualism, have often reproduced these same erasures. It is thus high time to reacquaint ourselves with Evelyn Trent, the American communist feminist who prioritized the struggle against imperialism above all else.

Becoming a Revolutionary

Originally from a middle-class California family, Trent’s first forays into revolutionary politics came through her association with Indian nationalist exiles in the United States. Prior to US entry into World War I, Indian anti-colonial activists, often from Punjab or Bengal, flocked to the United States as students, as laborers, and as agitators. They made contacts with the Wobblies, set up radical newspapers, lectured, and even formed a revolutionary political party, Ghadar, whose members caused trouble for the British in the Americas, Europe, and Central, South, and East Asia.

Active at a critical conjuncture in the 1920s, Evelyn Trent helped found the communist parties of Mexico and India.

As a student at Stanford between 1912 and 1916, Trent became an intimate of one such group of radical exiles who had formed a bohemian literary circle around the Bengali writer Dhan Gopal Mukerji. It was here that she met M. N. Roy, who was then a wanted man throughout the British empire, in 1916.

What may have begun either as a rejection of stiff bourgeois convention or a fascination for the exotic quickly transformed into a rejection of imperialism, capitalism, and perhaps even whiteness itself. Trent traveled with Roy to New York and worked as a secretary for Lala Lajpat Rai — the leading Indian nationalist prior to the ascent of Mahatma Gandhi — who was later to die at the hands of British colonial police. It was from Rai (and not Roy) that Trent learned the ins and outs of the colonial question.

After entering World War I in alliance with Britain and France, the United States began to clamp down on anti-British (and ostensibly pro-German) activities, singling out Indians in particular. Already an anti-colonial initiate, Trent made a drastic life choice. She married M. N. Roy (possibly to give him some protection) and fled to Revolutionary Mexico.

Trent thus received her first experience of revolution in Mexico City rather than Moscow. Mexico, whose revolution began in 1910 — initiating the epoch of socialist and anti-colonial revolutions — was then in a ferment. Emiliano Zapata had yet to be assassinated, and Pancho Villa had recently launched a small-scale invasion of the United States.

Radicals from across the world came, like Trent, to experience a real revolution for the first time. Trent began to study Marxism, and by the accounts of both Indian revolutionaries and British intelligence gatherers, it was Trent who influenced Roy’s conversion from nationalism to communism. She wrote a serialized book, Mexico and Her People, in the newspaper El Heraldo.

A deeply anti-patriarchal and anti-imperialist portrait of Mexico, with some forays into class analysis as well, this long-forgotten book stands out as one of the first of many romanticized accounts written by foreign communists such as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Eisenstein about the country that had experienced a major revolution many years before Russia.

Apart from her intellectual labor, Trent also participated in the feminist wing of Mexico’s Socialist Party, directed a “Friends of India” society, helped found Mexico’s Communist Party, and hid an emissary from the Communist International, Mikhail Borodin, in her home.

Santi Devi

In 1920, at Borodin’s request, Trent and Roy traveled to Moscow to attend the Second Congress of the Comintern, a meeting of communists from across the globe to devise strategies for world revolution. Trent entered the Soviet Union at a moment when Britain, France, and the United States were still waging war on the Bolsheviks as part of a counterrevolutionary conflict that killed at least five million people, while revolution was failing in Europe.

Evelyn Trent entered the Soviet Union at a moment when Britain, France, and the US were still waging war on the Bolsheviks.

Even amid imperialist embargo and strangulation, the Bolsheviks made major breakthroughs in land reform and women’s emancipation, and they began turning their gaze eastward, looking for allies in the colonial world. Roy stole the show at the conference, openly debating Lenin on the colonial question. As a result, Trent’s role in shaping Comintern anti-colonial strategy has been ignored.

Yet just prior to the conference, Trent and Roy cowrote a key document, “An Indian Communist Manifesto,” which anticipated much of what Roy said in his celebrated debate with Lenin. Besides stressing that India’s independence could only come through mass mobilization and social revolution, the manifesto also urged British workers to renounce the wages of whiteness accrued from colonial plunder and support the Indian struggle. This emphasis on the renunciation of white privilege was most certainly the contribution of Trent, who signed the document under the alias “Santi Devi.”

As self-proclaimed experts on the colonial and national questions, Trent and Roy were sent by the Comintern to Uzbekistan. There, Western-backed White forces and conservative Uzbek bandits — briefly led by Enver Pasha, architect of the Armenian Genocide — were fighting the Bolsheviks. Indeed, Trent herself prophetically warned that a key Western anti-communist strategy in Central Asia would be to arm Islamists.

Meanwhile, Uzbek reformers, known as Jadids, aligned with the Bolsheviks, culminating in the creation of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. In Bukhara, where Tsarist imperialism had operated through a reactionary client emirate, Bukharan reformers overthrew the Emir with the aid of the Red Army in 1920. Trent wrote the first Western account of the Bukhara Revolution and its experiments in land reform and mass education.

More than two hundred anti-imperialist Pan-Islamist radicals (Khilafatists) from India, known as Muhajirs, or the “fugitives,” had fled to Uzbekistan via Afghanistan, some initially intending to defend the Ottoman Caliphate, others hoping the Afghan monarchy might serve as an anti-British bulwark. As one British official fearfully noted, Uzbekistan was full of “Bolsheviks and revolutionary scum who regarded Turkistan as a land of milk and honey.”

In the land of milk and honey, Trent mostly worked as a teacher of socialism and feminism at a military school that Roy set up to train the Muhajirs as an anti-imperialist “international brigade” of the Red Army. Though most of the devoutly Muslim Muhajirs desired only military training, a few, like Shaukat Osmani, who remembered Trent fondly, converted to communism.

In October 1920, a small circle of Indian leftists founded the Indian Communist Party in Tashkent. Trent was a founding member and helped draft the party’s constitution. Her leap into Central Asian revolutionary politics was undoubtedly daring. When the Comintern suggested that Ukrainian revolutionary Angelica Balabanoff go to Tashkent, she angrily retorted that “a man would make a better impression” upon what she considered to be “a backward population, with a warrior’s psychology.” Trent had no such racial anxieties.

Revolutionary Teacher

The Tashkent military school proved to be short-lived. In 1921, the Comintern relocated it to Moscow and rebranded it as the Communist University of the Toilers of the East (KUTV), a school of political education for anti-colonialists from around the world. Trent was among its first teachers.

Instruction at the KUTV was delivered in Russian, Persian, and English. Trent taught (in English) on feminism and the history of revolutions to students from India, China, Korea, and Soviet Central Asia. A number of her students were Muhajirs who had followed her to Moscow. A very young Ho Chi Minh was a student at KUTV during this time and knew a bit of English — Trent may very well have been one of his teachers.

Trent became most well-known in India for her Marxist assessment of Gandhi.

From 1921, Trent worked multiple stints in Europe. She attempted to collaborate with Indian anti-colonial exiles in Berlin, though with little success: the Berlin group, led by Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, was disgruntled with what they saw as M. N. Roy’s overinflated importance within the Comintern. More importantly, she found that communist literature could be most easily smuggled into India via Europe, through help of Indian sailors.

From Berlin and Paris, Trent communicated with communists in India, like Muzaffar Ahmad, sometimes through letters signed by her sewn into the shirt sleeves of Indian comrades. In one such letter, intercepted by British intelligence, Trent called for outright acts of terrorism against the colonial regime, which she described as “Tsarist.”

She printed (and handed over to comradely Indian sailors) issues of the Indian Communist Party’s newspaper, Vanguard, which included many articles of her own composition. One British intelligence report observed on the publication of Vanguard that Roy “receives a considerable assistance on the literary side from his wife who was an American socialist named Evelyn Trent.”

On the “literary side,” Trent became most well-known in India for her Marxist assessment of Gandhi. Her articles simultaneously praised Gandhi for mobilizing the masses while criticizing him for attempting to control the masses. Her articles arrived in India at a time of disenchantment, right after Gandhi suddenly called off the mass noncooperation movement. With the sudden ending of Gandhi’s demand of “Swaraj [independence] in one year,” many Indian activists were then in search of more radical alternatives.

Anti-Colonial Feminism

At every stage, Trent creatively combined her Bolshevik feminism with anti-colonialism. The Soviet Union of the 1920s had decriminalized abortion and homosexuality, liberalized marriage laws, and given women the vote, not to mention lifting millions of peasant women out of illiteracy. Trent witnessed these feminist transformations firsthand, highlighting them in her groundbreaking reporting on the Bukhara Revolution.

At every stage, Trent creatively combined her Bolshevik feminism with anti-colonialism.

As a teacher at the Tashkent military school, she taught feminist ideas to receptive Pan-Islamists who had dreams of a liberation war against the British. At KUTV, feminism was not initially a part of the curriculum. Trent was the first to put it there. She held discussions in her classroom on “free love,” and brought visiting left-wing British and American suffragettes to lecture in her classes.

In 1920, Trent attended the First International Conference of Communist Women. She intervened to criticize a resolution drafted by European communists on “women of the East.” The resolution, she said, “mainly dwells on their backwardness, a topic that is constantly brought up to attack these women.” Liberal Europeans, she reminded them, “are in fact responsible for the backwardness of the people of the East.”

Aware of problems of representation, Trent tried to convince the revered veteran freedom fighter Bhikaji Rustom Cama (“Madam Cama”) to represent Indian women at communist women’s conferences, but she declined due to old age and health. Such actions reveal Trent’s commitment to Bolshevik feminism as well as her resolute resistance to the kind of white feminism that seeks to dictate to others what feminism ought to be.

In 1925, Trent participated in an anti-imperialist conference in Amsterdam, where she recommended the formation of a “committee of Indians, Egyptians, and Irish for concerted action against British imperialism.” The conference would be Trent’s final piece of anti-colonial work. For nearly a decade she had been constantly on the run, watched by British intelligence.

Even one of the Muhajirs, Abdul Qadr Khan, who followed Trent from Tashkent to KUTV, fed information to British intelligence. She faced deportation and detention multiple times. Her relationship with Roy became strained, likely due to Roy’s affairs. Moreover, Roy’s rivals in the Indian communist movement began circulating a rumor that she was a British spy.

The rumor quickly spread from Europe to Russia and India. All this was compounded by the fact that she was working full-time as a writer, printer, and organizer, and as Roy’s homemaker and secretary. The psychological stress became too much, and Trent left the movement in 1925.

Withdrawal and Erasure

After returning to a United States that was in the grip of a Red Scare, Trent never again participated in outright communist politics. Silence was the price of her independence. She became a journalist, reporting on world affairs for the San Francisco Chronicle, then worked for the Federal Writers’ Project, before becoming a housewife.

After returning to a United States that was in the grip of a Red Scare, Trent never again participated in outright communist politics.

In her journalism, she wrote about feminist movements in India and Japan, the repression of communists in China, and the Indian freedom movement. But she was always careful to conceal her past passions. She fully supported Indian freedom, but now wrote sympathetically of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress. The irony was that Indian leftists at the time knew her as a fierce critic of Gandhi.

Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, scholars, veteran Indian Communists, and friends of Roy contacted her hoping to learn more from her about Roy and about the early years of the movement. Paranoid about McCarthyite persecution, she said little and preserved only small pieces of documentary evidence of her past life.

Others pleaded with her to write her memoirs, which she resisted. Trent may have tried to erase her past. Nevertheless, Roy’s erasure of her in his own memoirs upset her greatly.

Legacy

An early rejecter of white feminism, a cofounder of two communist parties, and a key figure in the Comintern’s anti-colonial projects, Evelyn Trent is a figure too little known in the country of her birth, a country whose Left has long been reticent to celebrate its own anti-imperialist past. In India, the Communist movement, which Trent played a minor role in initiating, became a mass movement and the third-largest party at independence, which once ruled three states in post-colonial India (now only one).

She was remembered by some there not as a white savior, not as a leader, but as someone present at the beginning, when the movement was small and embattled. In his lengthy history of the Indian freedom struggle, E. M. S. Namboodiripad, a Gandhian turned Communist and two-time chief minister of Kerala, suggested that Trent’s critiques of Gandhi were both sharp and influential in their time. Having later written the most important critical Marxist biography of Gandhi, E. M. S. knew what he was talking about.

Muzaffar Ahmad, a longtime leader in the communist movement who illegally distributed Trent’s writings as a young man, rehabilitated her memory in the 1960s in his seminal book on the origins of the Communist Party of India (CP): there had been a debate at the time in India as to whether the CP was “officially” founded in Tashkent in 1920, or at Kanpur in 1925.

Ahmad portrayed Trent as Roy’s mentor and not his sidekick — a theoretician and not merely a wife. He angrily denounced Roy for erasing her role in his memoirs. As she was neither expelled from the party, nor did she officially resign, Ahmad continued to consider Trent, long after her exit from politics, as an Indian communist.

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