[For more articles by John Riddell, click HERE; for more on the Communist International, click HERE.]
By John Riddell
September 25, 2012 -- Johnriddell.wordpress, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The newly published proceedings of the Communist International’s Fourth Congress, Toward the United Front,
makes it possible for any socialist activist or independent researcher
to make the acquaintance of a wide spectrum of revolutionaries of the
1920s, both prominent and obscure. No guide or interpreter is needed.
Toronto socialists have developed a format for such encounters, in
which participants present and debate the ideas of various congress
delegates, without an opening introduction and often with theatrical
flair. Here is a record of one such study session, organized by the
Toronto Pape-Danforth branch of the International Socialists on
September 7, 2012. A previous Pape-Danforth event dealt with the
Communist Women’s Movement; another session, on trade unions and other
areas of work, is scheduled for November 16.
Preparatory materials for a series of such study classes will be
posted on this website in November, when Haymarket Press will publish a
low-cost paperback edition of the 1300-page congress proceedings.
The chosen topic for the September discussion was "Colonial Peoples
at the Fourth Comintern Congress", see below. Participants began preparations by
reading relevant sections of the book’s introduction, which provides a
road map to the proceedings. They selected speeches by delegates from
India, Indonesia, Tunisia, the United States (African Black
Brotherhood), Australia, and the Communist Women’s Movement, along with
comments in the congress on how much time the congress should devote to
revolution in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.
Each of these seven texts was presented by a different participant;
there was then general discussion. Here is the introduction provided to
participants before the event; their contributions are given in a separate article (see below).
Guide for a participatory study session
At the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922, the last attended by Lenin,
delegates from many colonised peoples discussed how to forge a broad
revolutionary alliance that could break the yoke of imperialist rule.
Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress
contains an extensive discussion on the freedom movement in the colonies
and semi-colonies of Asia and Africa, which delegates referred to as
Our study session is based on six congress speeches on this topic,
plus a seventh topic on a procedural dispute regarding the "Eastern
question". The resolution on this topic and a portion of the editor’s
introduction are also indicated for reference.
The readings are as follows (page references are to Toward the United Front):
- M.N. Roy (India) pp. 686-94.
- Tan Malaka (Indonesia) pp. 261-65.
- Tahar Boudengha (Tunisia) pp. 700-5.
- Otto Huiswoud (“Billings”, United States) pp. 800-7.
- William Earsman (Australia) pp. 716-19.
- Varsenika Kasparova (Comintern) and Clara Zetkin (Germany) pp. 868-70 + attached.
- Did the Congress give sufficient attention to the Eastern question? pp. 32-3, 707, 650, 735.
- Editor’s introduction pp. 28-33.
- Resolution pp. 1180-90
Marxism strikes roots in Asia
Immediately before the congress, the Turkish people won a decisive
victory in their independence struggle, driving imperialist troops from
their soil. The Turkish victory blasted open a breach in the oppressive
treaty system imposed by the victors of World War 1 in Versailles in
1919 and shifted the world relationship of forces. This event gave a
lift to all anti-colonial struggles, which were beginning to gather
strength across Asia.
The Communist International (Comintern) had taken a stand for
colonial freedom on its foundation in 1919, and this issue was at the
centre of its 1920 congresses in Moscow and Baku. The Comintern
maintained that the rise of national freedom struggles in the East was
essential to workers’ victory in the imperialist countries of Europe and
instructed all of its affiliates to give active support to movements
for colonial independence.
By 1922, small communist parties existed in many countries of Asia.
The Fourth Congress included delegates from six countries in Asia, two
in North Africa and many Asian nationalities within the Soviet federal
republic. Two delegates represented a revolutionary Black organisation
in the United States, the African Black Brotherhood. The Congress
established commissions to draw up resolutions on the "Eastern question"
and the "Black question", and convention sessions were devoted to debate
on these issues.
Delegates from Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and South Africa
were also present, but none of them spoke on the question of
One delegate, Varsenika Kasparova, spoke on work among women in the
East. Since her talk was very brief, it is coupled in this outline with a
related article by Clara Zetkin.
For an anti-imperialist united front
The chosen readings cover the following topics:
- M.N. Roy, a pioneer Indian Communist, introduces the
concept of a united front of revolutionary forces seeking to overturn
colonial and semi-colonial rule.
- Tan Malaka described how such an alliance had been realized with anti-imperialist Muslim forces in Indonesia.
- Tahar Boudengha reported on the obstacle posed by a “Communist Party” in Algeria made up of European settlers who supported colonial rule.
- Otto Huiswoud introduced a resolution for a united Black freedom struggle in both hemispheres.
- William Earsman described the difficulties faced by communists in Australia in countering white racist sentiments among many workers there.
- Varsenika Kasparova outlined the advances of women working people in many Asian countries. An article by Clara Zetkin, written in 1926, describes work by communists in the Caucasus to advance the cause of liberation among Muslim women.
- The final selection presents complaints that the congress did not
give enough attention to revolution in the colonies and semi-colonies,
together with responses by the congress Presidium.
The readings for this study session total about 35 pages;
participants should read them all. There will be no introductory
presentation; instead, seven participants will give short reports.
Each of the seven readings should be assigned to a participant, who
will prepare a five-minute presentation. The presenter should consider
adopting the voice of the Fourth Congress speaker in order to give the
gist of the speech. The presenter should then conclude with a few
comments of her/his own.
An open discussion period will follow. If there are more than ten participants, the session can divide into breakout groups.
1. John Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, Leiden: Brill, 2012; Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012.
the United Front, Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist
and translated by John Riddell
Brill, 2011 (hard back), 1310 pages, 200 euros
Haymarket Books, 2012 (paper back), US$55
Haymarket Books is now taking pre-publication orders of Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, at US$50, a 10% reduction. It is due to be released in November 2012.
To take advantage of Haymarket’s offer, go to Toward the United Front, order the book, go to “check-out” and enter RIDDELL2012 in the “coupon code” field.
To recommend the Brill hardcover edition to your favourite library, go to Brill Academic Publishers and click on “recommend”.
Toward the United Front will also be available from Resistance Books in November.
Colonial peoples at the Fourth Comintern Congress
By John Riddell
September 25, 2012 -- Johnriddell.wordpress, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- On September 7, 2012,
Toronto socialists presented and discussed the thoughts of delegates to
the Communist International’s Fourth World Congress, 90 years
earlier, on the freedom struggle in the colonies and semi-colonies. Six
of these short talks are reproduced below, with the presenters’
permission. For a description of how this innovative study session was
organised, see “Self-guided tour of revolutionary history” above.
- Tan Malaka (Dutch East Indies) – by Abbie Bakan
- Communist Women’s Movement – by Charnie Guettel
- Otto Huiswoud (African Black Brotherhood) – by Suzanne Weiss
- M.N. Roy (India) – by Michael Nikov
- Tahar Boudengha (Tunisia) – by Brian Donnelly
- William Earsman (Australia) – by John Riddell
Tan Malaka (Dutch East Indies)
Presented by Abbie Bakan
The Fourth Congress had a solid foundation in earlier congress
meetings, with a commitment to support national liberation movements
against imperialism and colonialism. But applying this in practice on
the ground proved a challenge. Even the allotment of a reasonable amount
of time to discuss the “Eastern question” was contentious.
Some delegates identified the changing relationship between Marxist
and pan-Islamic currents within the anti-imperialist struggle. Tan
Malaka, a delegate to the Fourth Congress from the Dutch East Indies
(Indonesia after independence in 1945), addressed the promise of uniting
in practice, and the dangers of a sectarian attitude.
“We have a long experience of pan-Islamism.… In Java there is quite a
large association called Sarekat Islam (Islamic Federation), which
includes many poor peasants. Between 1912 and 1916 this organization had
perhaps a million members – it could well have been as many as three or
four million.… Our party, with thirteen thousand members, went into the
popular movement and carried out propaganda there. In 1921 we were
successful in getting Sarekat Islam to adopt our programme. The Islamic
association spoke out in the villages for control of the factories and
for the slogan: All power to the poor peasants, all power to the
But in 1921 a split occurred as a result of clumsy criticism of the
leaders of Sarekat Islam. The government, through its agents in Sarekat
Islam, took advantage of this split and also made use of the decision of
the Second Congress of the Communist International: "Struggle against
Pan-Islamism! What did they say to the ordinary peasants? They said:
You see, the Communists do not merely want to split your religion, they
also want to destroy it….So we had a split.”
As Tan Malaka appealed to the delegates to understand this error, and
to apply the tactic of the united front consistently, the chair
interrupted, “Your time is up.” But Tan Malaka replied: “I come from the
Indies; I travelled for forty days.” At this point, the proceedings
indicate “Applause”, and Tan Malaka continues to draw lessons for the
Clearly there are rich lessons in these discussions for socialists
today, who continue to challenge imperialism, and to strive to build
Communist Women’s Movement
Presented by Charnie Guettel
Varsenika Kasparova contributed to the Fourth Congress, on the
subject of colonialism and socialism as regards women. But I am going to
present Clara Zetkin’s views on this topic, based on the reading of her
article on women in Soviet Transcaucasia. Toward the end, I’ll expand
on it a bit, in my own words. Here’s what Clara tells us.
The Muslim Women’s Clubs of the Soviet Republics are of great
historical significance, as I learned from visiting the Muslim Women’s
Club in the town of Tiflis in Transcaucasia. Here the rooms were
bursting with women educating each other, to learn to read and write, to
learn skills for making a living, to reach equality with men in a
patriarchal world where before the revolution women had no rights.
In many ways migration to the cities from the mountains and the
steppes and all of the countryside left women worse off than when they
were agricultural. Even their traditional skills were in many ways lost,
and since everything now came about from money, the male wage in the
household left the women more dependent on the men than ever before.
As a consequence of this change, the Muslim women lost their
significance in the eyes of their husbands as co-workers preserving the
At the Women’s Clubs, it is in the hands of the women to educate each
other, both in the skills they once had in the country (sewing,
embroidery and other crafts) and the new technical and cultural skills
of an industrial society.
The women’s struggle is key to the national liberation struggle. We
have much to learn from the Muslim women of Tiflis. The Soviet Union,
including the Russian Empire, is founded in this stage of proletarian
socialism, on transforming private agriculture, a system of millions of
poor peasants recently liberated from serfdom, into a socialist economy.
How we collectivise agriculture depends on our understanding of the
many peasant cultures and religions that make up the Soviet Union. If we
steal their land and land rights with no recompense, destroy their
churches, their religious leaders, ‘outlaw’ their customs, we do so from
ignorance and prejudice, setting up the culture of urban secular
industrial workers as the only way to live.
It is possible that the proletarian attitude of superiority to
country workers (such as mischaracterising poor peasants as “Kulaks”) is
ingrained because agricultural work is in appearance more like the
unpaid “women’s work” of the home and childrearing that still leaves the
women of our industrial proletariat with a double burden.
And as for religious culture being in and of itself “anti-socialist”:
most people, especially the poor who suffer the most, pray and
treasure sustaining systems of worship and prayer (religion).
If you don’t think all too often dogmatic communists aren’t
religious, just take a look at how the unacknowledged sectarian
practices have already limited our scientific socialism. Faith in
socialism has a religious aspect, as the Muslim women of Tiflis could tell you.
Otto Huiswoud (African Black Brotherhood)
Presented by Suzanne Weiss
Hello, I am Otto Huiswoud. I was born in 1893 in Suriname. I’m a
Black political activist, and a charter member of the Communist Party of
America. I was the party’s representative to the Executive Committee of
the Communist International in 1922.
I want to summarise the views I presented at this congress, comrades.
The Black question is a part of the racial and colonial question, but
it has until now not received any special attention in the Communist
movement. The Black question is chiefly economic in nature both in the
US and Africa.
The fact is that the 12 million Blacks in the US, where I live,
bear the mark of slavery. Comrades, “you would believe yourselves to be
in Dante’s inferno” in the south of the US. It is as if it were a
separate country. The class struggle there is waged in its most brutal
form, in a life-and-death struggle where Blacks are lynched at times as
occasions for enjoyment.
The bourgeoisie fully understands the usefulness of Blacks. Blacks
are sent to the northern industrialised cities as strike breakers with
promises of higher wages and better conditions. The trade union
bureaucrats have refused Blacks membership. The capitalist and
reactionary Black press exploited this fact in order to turn Black
workers against the unions and white workers. But the bourgeoisie had
set its task as infecting the Black population with bourgeois ideology.
However, it is inevitable that Blacks would find a way of defending themselves against the oppression that it suffers.
At first, Blacks were permitted to organise only through churches.
This continues today, however, there are three Black organisations that
have significance. The first is the NAACP, composed of proletarian
forces but led by bourgeois intellectuals. Its activity is essentially
begging the capitalist to improve the conditions of Blacks.
There is the Black nationalist Garvey movement. It has a membership
that reaches deep into Africa. It has awakened Black consciousness and
All the Black organisations are to some degree against capital. But
organisation with which I stand is the African Blood Brothers whose
program is based on the destruction of capitalism. This rebellious
movement is growing.
The Comintern commission on Blacks has drafted theses which,
comrades, must be applied immediately and diligently. The three points
of Communist focus is:
- It is essential to support every form of the Black movement that
undermines capitalism and imperialism in Africa, the US and among the
- Black workers must be organised everywhere.
- The Russian revolution and the great revolts of Asian and Muslim
people have awakened the consciousness of millions of Blacks. We should
call a conference of Blacks here in Moscow.
Upon reflection, I, Suzanne, note that Huiswoud, and other Blacks
from the US, much like the women at the Fourth Congress, had to be
forceful in focusing the attention of the delegates on the Black
question. Huiswoud and the other Black delegate, Claude McKay,
thoroughly understood the international nature of capitalism and
imperialism and applied it to the Black struggle.
Their eloquent intervention reminded me of Malcolm X and his efforts
to internationalise the Black struggle, making ties between the US
Blacks and those in Africa. After a rough beginning, Malcolm urged unity
among Blacks, and recognised the enemy was not the white worker, but
capital both here and abroad. He and Huiswoud and McKay would have made a
fine team at the Fourth Congress. Fundamentally, Malcolm X was making
inroads, and in my opinion, that is why he was assassinated.
M. N. Roy (India)
Presented by Michael Nikov
M.N. Roy begins his contribution to the Fourth Congress by expressing
his displeasure at both the lack of discussion on the national question
prior to the Congress, and the lack of time allocated, saying:
Comrades, the Eastern question should have been dealt with many
times already. It should have been taken up in connection with the
capitalist offensive, for when you speak of this offensive, you should
not ignore the reserves on which capitalism is based and which it can
call on in the future. But this was not the case. And now that this
question finally is posed for debate, the time allowed for that is so
limited that it is in practice simply not possible to handle the
question in anything like a clear manner.
This being said, Roy quickly moves on to confirming that in the wake
of the Russian Revolution, “the national movement in the colonial and
semi-colonial countries is objectively revolutionary, and thus forms
part of the worldwide revolutionary struggle.”
However, Roy cautions that “today we know that the Eastern countries
cannot be treated as a politically, economically, or socially
homogeneous entity,” and special care must be taken to understand the
particular “social character” of the “East”.
To Roy, the East can be divided into three categories, each with its own “objective factors” and challenges:
1. Firstly, there are “countries in which capitalism has reached a
rather high level of development” (p. 2). He argues that revolutionaries
should not have any illusions about the revolutionary potential of the
native bourgeois in these countries, stating:
[T]he highest layer of the bourgeoisie, that is, the layer that
already owns what one might call a stake in the country and has invested
significant capital and built up industry, now considers it more
advantageous for them to shelter under imperialist protection.
The native bourgeois, as a result of its late arrival on the scene,
is “in no way ready to play further the role as a liberator”. The native
bourgeois will make compromises with their imperial masters to maintain
“law and order” and may even force concessions. However, these
concessions will create the “seeds of future conflicts”.
2. “Secondly, there are countries where capitalist development has
begun but is still at an elementary level, and feudalism still
constitutes the backbone of society.” Here, compromises will be offered,
but Roy argues that:
[T]he results of this policy have been less satisfactory than in the
[more developed] countries. The interests of the feudal bureaucracy and
the colonial feudal lords cannot be as readily appeased as is possible
between the imperialist and native bourgeoisies.
In this case, Roy is more favourable to the developing native
bourgeois taking a leadership role in the national struggle, although
warning “that this objective factor must not be accepted
3. And finally, a third category exists, “where primitive conditions
still prevail, and the social order is dominated by patriarchal
Roy looks to “another social factor” that can decisively intervene in
the national struggle, assume leadership, and redirect it. In the more
capitalistically advanced Eastern states, this must be the proletarian
class, while in countries with feudalistic and military cliques, the
peasantry (i.e. the “agrarian movement” to Roy) will assume this role.
While Roy does not explicitly rule out an alliance with the
revolutionary bougeois parties, he hold more hope in the proletarian
classes in Western imperial countries forming an anti-imperial united
front with their comrades in the East.
This would ensure that the Eastern proletarian parties will be free
from depending on the “wavering bourgeois and bring the masses more
actively into the vanguard.”
Tahar Boudengha (Tunisia)
Presented by Brian Donnelly
We know very little about Tahar Boudengha except that he was a
delegate from Tunisia, where he was a postal worker. What he said in the
congress was very influential. Here’s a summary:
French imperialism has colonies close to Europe, with troops readily
available to suppress socialism and revolution even in France itself.
There is discontent among the native people in North Africa. Tunisian
communists orient to workers and peasants with daily papers and public
meetings in Arabic. These have been too successful, and there is
repression across all of North Africa.
French comrades who have visited confirm that the objective forces
for proletarian revolution are present. We need an international
campaign, a single party initiative that unites comrades in the
colonies, in France, and elsewhere. The French party needs a single
colonial policy that is clear about nationalism of the oppressed.
Progressive, reformist nationalist movements want a constitution,
native rights and land, but they are beaten down by the French army. We
need to support genuine liberation movements.
The Communist Party in Algeria is focused on elections that exclude
the native majority. has an electoral focus instead. They say the
Comintern’s call for liberation of Algeria and Tunisia was a mistake,
hurting their electoral chances. They say the Algerian natives can only
be liberated by revolution n France.
We should not bow to electoral concerns of “pseudo-Communists” in
Algeria. They have too much influence on International’s colonial
policy. They get it backwards: the revolution in France can’t succeed
without the anti-colonial struggle in North Africa. The British
Communists also lag in support for India and Egypt (and Ireland).
It is cowardly to abandon the oppressed. We need unity of oppressed peoples.
We should support pan-Islamism, as Tan Malaka has argued. Religion
has been barrier to Communism, but Islam does not recognize wage labor,
calls for the wealthy to give to the poor and unemployed. Rural land in
Algeria is already under collective ownership. Muslims adopt communist
The International must not wait for the right conditions; it must lead this struggle now.
William Earsman (Australia)
Presented by John Riddell
Good evening, comrades. My name is William Earsman. I’m a 38-year-old
lathe operator representing the Australian Communist Party. I’m an
Englishman, actually, but I’ve lived in Australia for 12 years.
Regarding the colonial question, our main challenge is the prejudices
among white workers aroused by fear of cheap coloured labour.
Australia’s laws against coloured immigration reflect this fear. The
capitalists have brought in masses of Indian and Chinese contract
labourers to South Sea islands and are getting ready to do that in
Australia. In response, workers are uniting in defence of the White
Australia policy. I hear that something like this is also happening in
your country, Canada.
At this year’s trade union conference in Melbourne, the Communist
Party explained that these White Australia laws are harmful to the
workers’ cause. The laws defend the interests of Australian workers
against those in Japan, China and other nearby countries.
We have just succeeded in getting the revolutionary unions to drop
their ban against coloured members. The unions organise 80% of
Australian workers, and they are strong enough to force every coloured
worker who comes to the country to join the unions.
The Comintern has underlined the growing danger of war in the
Pacific. The capitalists will try to reinforce existing fears of the
“yellow peril” with fear of a “yellow invasion”. This could rally
support war in numbers never seen before.
The Melbourne trade union conference called for a pan-Pacific
congress as the best way to reach agreement among workers from China,
India, the Malay islands, the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere in
the region. This congress will enable them to decide on the best ways to
explain to workers the reactionary character of their support for the
colour bar in Australia.
I ask your support for this project. Thank you.
Now for a comment. Earsman deserves credit for facing squarely the
issue of racism among Australian workers and denouncing the White
Australia policy. Previously, Australian labour had been aligned with
the white-chauvinist forces in the Second International. He describes
the colour bar as a concession to workers’ pressure, missing the role of
capitalism in promoting racist feeling.
He has a patronising attitude to racialised workers, saying they will
be “forced” into the unions. In fact, they may bring with them the
spirit of the Asian revolution. He does not see the energy and
commitment they can contribute to the Australian workers' movement.
Earsman’s speech reflects how urgent and also how difficult it was to
overcome chauvinist feelings among privileged workers in the
imperialist countries, a chauvinism sometimes expressed even within the