The tinderbox that was colonial Asia flared up in the period 1905 to 1927, with fires being ignited in different places, from Shanghai to Canton to Saigon to Kuala Lumpur to Bombay. Those setting the fires were women and men of action who might have been diverse in ideological orientation but shared one thing in common: to bring down the British, French, and Dutch empires and trigger social revolutions. This amazingly well researched 826-page book by Tim Harper is about that now forgotten first pan-Asian revolution, focusing on personalities that made their way through Asia’s equivalent of the underground railway, the teeming port cities that housed increasing numbers of the new urban proletariat that was waiting to be organized along anti-colonial, anti-capitalist lines. These figures included the now forgotten M.N. Roy, the intellectual Tan Malaka, whose central role in the creation of Indonesia is now being reconstructed, and the legendary Nguyen Ai Quoc, aka Ho Chi Minh. To battle these revolutionaries, the security agencies of the empires increasingly cooperated, but some like Nguyen Ai Quoc and Tan Malaka responded with increasingly sophisticated ways of escaping their dragnets.
The momentum towards revolution heightens with the formation of the Communist International In Moscow in 1919, which draws most of the key actors in the Asian drama to its orbit. With the Chinese Revolution prioritized by Moscow, now storied agents like Henk Sneevliet and Mikhail Borodin are sent to micro-manage it, to ensure that the newly formed Chinese Communist Party would form an alliance with Sun Yat Sen’s Guomindang to bring about the national revolution. The book’s final section details the consequences of this strategy, with Chiang Kai Shek’s turning against the Communists and the terrible massacres to which they are subjected in Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, and other cities.
Yet, as the book makes clear, lessons were derived from the failures of the 1905-1927 period, leading to the forging of peasant-based revolutionary strategies that triumphed in the post-World War II period with Mao Zedong in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. The post-World War II triumphs, however, came, with their “inward turning,” with the diminishment of the internationalist spirit of the first pan-Asian revolutionary era. With a gift for narrating events like a spy story, Tim Harper’s landmark book resurrects the voices of the many personalities of a now forgotten era, gives them their proper place in history, and captures the intensity of the unnamed women and men they inspired to often tragic action.