Toward a global strategic framework: The Comintern and Asia 1919-25 (Part 1)

Manabendra Nath Roy

By John RiddellJanuary 28, 2018 
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary website — The revolutionary activists who founded the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 had little contact with movements for national and colonial liberation outside Russia. Nonetheless, only a year later, in July 1920, the Comintern adopted a far-reaching strategy for national and social revolution in dependent countries, later termed the anti-imperialist united front. This policy was adopted much earlier than the analogous united-front approach in the industrialized capitalist powers of the West. Moreover, the quest for unity in oppressed countries of Asia and Africa was pursued with persistence, while the united front in Europe was applied by fits and starts. The anti-imperialist united front did not achieve decisive results in the 1920s, and in China, where conditions were the most favourable, it led in 1927 to a severe defeat. To understand this setback, we must look at ambiguities of the policy itself and at the contradictory relationship of national parties with the Moscow-based Comintern leadership. In subsequent decades, efforts to forge unity against imperialism scored important victories and contributed to the demise of direct colonial rule almost everywhere by the end of the century. The interaction in the early 1920s of pioneer anti-colonial activists with central leaders of the Russian revolution reveals much regarding the dynamic of such movements throughout the century.

Socialists and colonial freedom

The Comintern emerged in part as a reaction against the Socialist or Second International, which unified world socialist forces from 1889 to 1914. The Comintern’s Second Congress (1920) denounced its predecessor as having “in reality recognized the existence only of people with white skin,” while Indian Communist M.N. Roy told the same gathering that for the pre-1914 International “the world did not exist outside of Europe.”[1] Marxist teaching then rested on an economic logic underlying the emergence of nations. Capitalist expansion, while cruel in its effects, had a progressive result: the creation of the modern proletariat. Some right-wing socialists, like Hendrick Van Kol of the Netherlands, rationalized this into support for enlightened colonialism. Revolutionary Marxists succeeded in 1907 in convincing a Second International congress to categorically condemn colonialism – but only by a narrow margin of 127 to 108.[2] Even then, the International stopped short of calling for independence for the colonies. Revolutionary uprisings in China, Turkey, and Iran (Persia) in 1908-11 convinced many socialists that liberation struggles in Asia would shake capitalist stability. Lenin heralded the new era by the audacious title he placed on an article in 1913, “Backward Europe, Advanced Asia”:
Everywhere in Asia a mighty democratic movement is growing, spreading and gaining in strength. The bourgeoisie there is as yet siding with the people against reaction. Hundreds of millions of people are awakening to life, light and freedom. What delight this world movement is arousing in the hearts of all class-conscious workers, who know that the path to collectivism lies through democracy! What sympathy for young Asia imbues all honest democrats!
And “advanced” Europe? It is plundering China and helping the foes of democracy, the foes of freedom in China![3]
It took time for Lenin’s inversion of the “advanced-backward” hierarchy to catch on; Comintern documents bristled with reference to “backward” nations. Fernando Claudín has suggested that the Second International’s revolutionary wing, which founded the Communist International, was still bound within two “Eurocentrist” preconceptions, both of which can be traced back to the foundation of Marxism: (1) Liberation of colonial and dependent countries “must be the result of the socialist revolution in the West”; and (2) “socialist transformation of the world meant its Europeanization.”[4] Both issues were addressed in the Comintern’s first two years. When war broke out across Europe in 1914, most socialist parties rallied to support their rulers and their war effort, while a revolutionary minority remained true to the International’s previous pledge to oppose this imperialist conflict. Antiwar socialists often explained, however, that they would unconditionally support a war of the colonial slaves against their European masters; among their demands was “immediate liberation of the colonies.” Lenin called for support to revolutionary movements for national liberation, even if they were not socialist in character. Not all of his allies in the left wing of anti-war socialists agreed; Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky then dismissed as futile the 1916 Irish uprising against British rule, for example.[5]

1917: The impact of revolution

The peoples of Russia that shook off tsarist rule in 1917 were, in their majority, members of minority nationalities and ethnic groups. Most of tsarist territory lay in Asia, and close to 15% of the population were Muslim in religion. Lenin, Radek, Trotsky, and other Bolsheviks joined in demanding freedom for the subject peoples, including their right to separate from Russia. When revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ councils – Soviets – took power in October 1917, measures to promote national freedom were among their first decisions. One of the Russian Soviet government’s first actions was to proclaim the right of all the subject peoples within the boundaries of the old tsarist empire to “free self-determination up to and including the right to secede.” Finland, Estonia, and other states had acted on this pledge, establishing their independence. Another early Soviet appeal pledged to Muslim workers and farmers that “henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable. Declaring null and void all the treaties through which tsarism had lorded it over and looted the Eastern peoples, the appeal called on them to “build your national life freely and without hindrance.”[6] Within a few months, the Soviets were attacked by the combined forces of the old ruling classes in Russia and expeditionary armies of the imperialist powers. In some cases, as in Ukraine, both sides in the civil war claimed to act in the name of national freedom. Some anti-Soviet forces in minority nations sought assistance from abroad. Strivings for national liberation worked themselves out in the turmoil of a vast revolutionary war sweeping over a sixth of the world’s surface. In November 1918, revolution broke out in Germany, bringing the world war to an abrupt end. Workers’ councils inspired by the Russian example cropped up in Germany and some other parts of Europe. Hopes were high that the workers’ upsurge in the West would bring aid to the beleaguered and besieged Soviet republic.[7]

Founding congress

The Communist International was launched in March 1919 by an International Communist Conference in Moscow. The imperialist blockade of Soviet Russia limited attendance to 52 delegates, only a handful of whom were from abroad. Thirteen delegates came from non-European minorities in Russia, including delegates from the leagues of Korean and Chinese workers in Russia.[8] The conference manifesto, drafted by Trotsky, strongly denounced colonial oppression. “There are open rebellions and revolutionary ferment in all the colonies,” it stated, projecting that the workers’ upsurge in Europe would bring colonial peoples much-needed assistance.
The liberation of the colonies is possible only together with the liberation of the working class in the imperialist centers…. Colonial slaves of Africa and Asia: the hour of proletarian dictatorship in Europe will also be the hour of your liberation.
Comintern historian Sobhanlal Datta Gupta states that while recognizing the colonial question, these words “make it evident that at the time of the birth of the Comintern, it was considered as an appendage to the problem of proletarian revolution in the West.”[9] This conclusion may be overdrawn; the text can be read as a simple statement of expectations at a time when, in the view of revolutionary socialists, the probable triumph within months of revolution in central and western Europe would soon demolish the colonial empires. The manifesto, translated into many languages, influenced anti-colonial in many parts of the world. For example, Claude McKay, a pioneer Black Communist in the U.S., tells us that “this passage in the manifesto awakened interest among many groups of radical blacks, who distributed the document across the U.S.”[10] Other resolutions of the First Comintern congress pledged support to colonial peoples in their struggle against imperialism and condemned the previously pro-war workers’ parties for explicitly endorsing colonial rule.[11] Datta Gupta also notes an ill-advised reference in another congress resolution’s reference to the imperialists’ use against European workers of “brutal, barbaric colonial troops” – that is, working people conscripted in the colonies. Dutch delegate S.J. Rutgers protested against this passage, proposing instead a denunciation of the colonial powers for attacking workers in Europe “with the same ruthlessness with which they proceeded against colonial peoples.” Rutgers’ proposal was not incorporated. Yet even as the congress met, African troops deployed in France’s intervention against the Soviet republic were demonstrating their opposition to this war; French generals called them “uncontrollable.” The error regarding “Black troops” was not formally rectified until the Comintern’s 1921 world congress.[12]

For ‘combined’ global struggle

The founding congress’s focus on revolution in Europe was soon modified. Eight months after the founding congress Lenin proposed a framework for an integrated, global struggle against imperialism. By then, the greatest crisis of the civil war had passed, and Soviet armies, including close to 300,000 Muslim and 50,000 immigrant Chinese soldiers, were advancing into Asia. In November 1919, Lenin explained the implications of this struggle to a conference of Communist Organizations of the Peoples of the East, founded the previous year to unite pro-Soviet groups among the predominantly Muslim peoples of the old Tsarist empire. Lenin said, in part:
[T]he socialist revolution will not be solely, or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all the imperialist-oppressed colonies and countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism… [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.[13]
With the overall strategic framework now determined, the Comintern moved to establish an instrument for its implementation. A month later, on 11 December 1919, the Comintern Executive Committee established an Eastern Department to coordinate work in this arena. In addition, an educational arm, the Communist University of Toilers of the East, was formed on 21 April 1921, administered by the Soviet Commissariat of Nationalities.[14] Notes [1]. John Riddell, ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, hereinafter Second Congress, (New York: Pathfinder, 1991), 1:220; 2:694. [2]. Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents, 1907-1917 (New York: Pathfinder, 1984), 5-16. [3]. V.I. Lenin, “Backward Europe, Advanced Asia” (18 May 1913), in Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle, 99. [4]. Fernando Claudín, From Comintern to Cominform, (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), 275. [5]. Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle, 212, 357, 369, 372-9. [6]. Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East, hereinafter Baku Congress (New York, Pathfinder 1993), 12-13; for the full statements, see 247-52. [7]. See Riddell, ed., The German Revolution and the Debate on Soviet Power (New York: Pathfinder, 1986). [8]. For list of delegates, see John Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress (New York: Pathfinder, 1987), 41-3. [9]. Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, Comintern and the Destiny of Communism in India 1919-1943 (Kolkata: Seribaan, 2011), 72. [10]. Riddell, ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 808-9. [11]. Riddell, First Congress, 248, 202. [12]. Riddell, ed. First Congress, 131 (Rutgers), 248 (resolution), 342-4 (background); Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, hereinafter Third Congress (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 946 (correction). [13]. Riddell, First Congress, 261. [14]. Datta Gupta, Comintern and India, 95-96.