Should Communists ally with revolutionary nationalism? The Comintern and Asia 1919-25 (Part 2)
Turar Ryskulov (1894-1938)By John RiddellJanuary 28, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary website — As described in part 1 of this series, the Comintern leadership concluded at the end of 1919 that “[T]he civil war of the working people against the imperialists and exploiters in all the advanced countries is beginning to be combined with national wars against international imperialism.” But how would the proposed alliance of workers’ and national uprisings be effected? This strategic issue was addressed in the Comintern’s Second Congress, held in Moscow 9 July-7 August 1920. The civil war was now won, and Soviet troops were advancing into Poland. Despite the continuing blockade, 218 delegates attended the congress, including 33 representing groups in 12 countries and peoples in Asia. Although most of these groups were no more than small nuclei, Lenin, in his opening report, stressed the significance of their presence in the first truly global congress of world socialism. The congress, he said, was taking the first steps toward union in struggle of the revolutionary proletarians with the masses of countries representing 70% of the world’s population who “find it impossible to live under the conditions that ‘advanced’ and civilized capitalism wishes to impose on them.” The discussion was shaped by the arrival of M.N. Roy, a 33-year-old exiled revolutionary from India with a formed concept of anti-imperialist strategy that differed significantly from that of Lenin. The nub of the disagreement was Roy’s skepticism, based on Indian experience, regarding the prospects for a viable alliance with bourgeois nationalist forces. The Bolsheviks, under tsarism, had been dismissive of the revolutionary potential of Russian capitalists, but did not extend this judgment to the entire colonial bourgeoisie, who seemingly had something to gain from national independence. Roy and Lenin had extensive discussions, in which each modified his theses to accommodate suggestions of the other. The two sets of theses were then presented jointly to a panel of delegates (“commission”), reported into the Congress, and overwhelmingly adopted. Lenin reported to the congress that the commission, in response to Roy’s objections, had altered its description of the proposed alliance, substituting the term “national-revolutionary” for the term “bourgeois-democratic.” Lenin continued:
The significance of this change is that we, as Communists, should and will support bourgeois liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organizing in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited. If these conditions do not exist, the Communists in these countries must combat the reformist bourgeoisie.Lenin explained that this definition would not apply to the bourgeoisie of the oppressed country if, while supporting the national movement, it joined with the imperialist bourgeoisie against “all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes,” as is “very often” the case. It has been objected that this terminological change fails to resolve a very real political dilemma. “The bourgeois liberation movement that does not fear the arousal of the ‘mass of the exploited’ is not to be found in the twentieth century,” writes Duncan Halles. A genuinely revolutionary nationalist movement, adds Claudín, is as hard to find as a “white blackbird.” In fact, Lenin, in his report, applied the term “bourgeois-democratic” very broadly, including the peasants, “who represent bourgeois-capitalist relations.” Moreover, there certainly are instances in which revolutionary-nationalist movements, as Lenin defines them, have been victorious, as for example in Cuba. Still, there is a genuine dilemma here, which becomes clear if this formula for alliance is compared with the “united front” recommended by the Comintern for imperialist countries in 1921. The latter policy proposes alliance around specific demands with all major workers’ organizations, regardless of their leadership. The decision to ally with revolutionary-nationalist forces, by contrast, was dependent on a judgment call based on their character and the political context. It has been argued that offers of alliance could seem insincere since Communists were in the untenable position of simultaneously supporting bourgeois nationalists and seeking to undermine them (as would be the case in the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7). In fact it was the bourgeois allies – the Guomindang – that betrayed the alliance in 1925-7, but in its later Stalinist years, the Comintern was notoriously unreliable in its alliances. The period under discussion, however, is not marked by such turnabouts. When reformist leaders expressed doubts regarding the durability of alliances with the Comintern, the early International responded in the spirit of Karl Radek, one of its leaders, who stated in 1922, “That depends on you. Show that you want to fight, and then we will travel at least a part of the road with you.” The Second Congress also laid to rest the second assumption identified by Claudín as “Eurocentrist,” namely that every people must experience a capitalist stage of development. “The backward countries,” explained Lenin, “aided by the proletariat of the advanced countries, can go over to the soviet system and, through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass through the capitalist stage.” Some historians have maintained that, in saying this, Lenin turned Marxist ideology on its head, by denying the need for societies to develop through an unvarying sequence of productive modes. Nonetheless, this notion found expression in a variety of contexts. The Soviet republic strove to integrate pre-capitalist nomadic societies into a post-capitalist state. It also attempted, as Clara Zetkin explained to the Comintern’s 1922 congress, to encourage the peasantry’s “old and deeply felt traditions of indigenous village communism,” viewing them as “beginnings of communist understanding.” At the same congress, Tahar Boudengha, a delegate from Tunisia, pointed to patriarchal communism in North Africa, saying that “we can nonetheless develop it, reform it, and replace it by fully developed communism.” Later in the decade, José Carlos Mariátegui and other Latin American Marxists applied this concept to analysis of indigenous peoples in their hemisphere. During the 1920s, the Soviet state was committed to a vast project of assisting minority nationalities in promoting their cultural identity, including through development of national languages and alphabets; education and publishing in these languages; and preference in employment — all in the cause of promoting internationalism among Soviet peoples. Although not well integrated at that time into the corpus of Marxist theory, “affirmative action” for Soviet nationalities took root in the consciousness of many Comintern activists. These steps were not taken without resistance. Indeed, Lenin’s final writings sounded the alarm against a tendency found among Communists in Russia to act as “a vulgar Great-Russian” bully. In the 1930s, these gains were compromised. Soviet policy veered toward Russification, while Stalin’s murderous purges took a heavy toll among minority peoples. Nonetheless, the achievements in nationalities policy proved to be among the most resilient achievements of the Russian revolution and are reflected even today in structures of the Russian federal republic and the now-independent borderland states.
The Comintern looks eastRelations with pre-capitalist societies came to the fore in the congress held two months later in Baku, Azerbaijan, rightly described by Comintern President Grigori Zinoviev as the “complement, the second half” of the Second World Congress. Since the “first session” ended in July, events in Europe had taken a decisive turn. The Red Army offensive into Poland had been repulsed, and both sides sought peace. The seven-year cycle of war and civil war in European Russia ended. Meanwhile, Asiatic Russia and its southern borderlands were torn by upheaval and war. British armies were now in retreat from their Central Asiatic outposts, while the Red Army advanced southward and eastward. New Muslim-led Soviet republics had sprung up in the Russian borderlands. Since April, Azerbaijan had been a Soviet republic, with Baku as its capital. Across its southern border, Turkey was gripped by revolution, as a new nationalist government based in Ankara fought to win national independence. For the Comintern, as E.H. Carr has noted, the Baku Congress was to begin a process “of calling in the East to redress the balance of the West.” Convened as a mass anti-imperialist assembly of workers and peasants from Turkey, Armenia, and Iran, the congress drew 1,891 participants, mostly from Asian Soviet republics but with delegations of more than 100 from Iran, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Among them two-thirds recorded their affiliation as Communist, while the balance included a diversity of radical nationalists of many persuasions. The Congress record reflects strenuous efforts to forge a synthesis between national and socialist revolutions, revealing strains over policy in Turkey, Palestine, Communist policy in the Soviet republics of Asia, and toward women. In a speech to the Baku Congress, Narbutabekov, congress co-chair and also chair of its caucus of non-Communist delegates, sharply attacked chauvinist practices by some Soviet officials in Central Asia. A lengthy protest arguing the case against such abuses, signed by 21 delegates from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, and India, was presented by Turar Ryskulov. The indignant Turkestan revolutionists received a good measure of satisfaction. After the close of the Congress, 27 of its delegates travelled to Moscow, met with the Communist Party Political Bureau, and helped shape a decision, drafted by Lenin, addressing their complaints and taking corrective action. This is the only instance where a minority initiative at a Comintern gathering obtained an alteration of Soviet internal policies.
Organizing revolutionary women of the EastFifty-five women took part in the Baku Congress, and women’s struggle for liberation was addressed during the proceedings on several occasions. The active role of these women challenged the outlook of many delegates whose societies still practiced, to varying degrees, the seclusion of women. A proposal to elect three women to the Presiding Committee aroused strong objections, often rooted in religious faith, among some participants who were not Communists. The issue was discussed by the caucus of non-Communist delegates, and the ensuing debate lasted several days. On the sixth day of sessions, the chair called on the congress to include three women: Bulach Tatu, from Dagestan; Najiye Hanum, from Turkey; and Khaver Shabanova-Karayeva, from Azerbaijan, of whom the last two addressed the Congress. The proceedings at this point read:
“’Yes, yes.’ Applause, rising to an ovation…. Chair: ‘Long live the emancipation of the women of the East!’ Loud applause. Shouts of ‘Hurrah!’ All Stand. Ovation.” A statement on the liberation struggle of women of the East was presented to the congress by Najiye Hanum and Khaver Shabanova (translator). At the Fourth Comintern Congress (1922), a report on work among women of the East was given at its Fourth Congress by Varsenika Kasperova, head of the women’s division of the International’s Eastern Department. Kasperova called for development of “an intelligentsia of revolutionary women” of the East and concluded:
Neither the anti-imperialist united front nor the united front of women workers can be realized without drawing in the broadest masses of women.Kasperova, like a significant majority of prominent participants in the early Comintern who were within Joseph Stalin’s reach and whose fate is known, fell victim to Stalin’s murderous repression in the 1930s. The Baku Congress is set apart, however, by a grim tally: every one of its speakers from Asia who were within Stalin’s reach and whose fate is known fell victim to his frame-up purges.