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The Bolsheviks and nationalism: four cogent comments

July 31, 2011

My article “Nationality’s role in social liberation: the Soviet legacy” drew four comments, each of which raises an important issue. They take up (1) Soviet attitudes to Sharia-based customary law; (2) the consistency of Lenin’s thought; (3) the role of the Jewish Bund; and (4) the results of Soviet rule in Armenia. Here are the readers’ contributions, plus a few remarks of my own.

1. Sharia and Soviet Law in the 1920s

Pierre Rousset writes from Paris…

This article and the previous one referred to (on the Russian Revolution and the National Question) have been put online on ESSF (Europe solidaire sans frontières) website.

May I mention two questions?

To state that Sharia was integrated into the Soviet law seems to me to short a formulation. First because “sharia” has various meanings or incarnations, second because, if my memory is good, all of “sharia” was not integrated, especially concerning the status of women (not a minor issue…).

Also, your November 2006 article mentions the formation of the Indigènes de la République. Since then, the evolution of this movement into the Parti des Indigènes de la République is very problematic. It expresses something, but what?

Thanks for your useful works…

Pierre Rousset

In response to Pierre’s important clarification, I added the following note to my article “Nationality’s Role in Social Liberation”: “Pierre Rousset’s comment is correct in noting that use of customary Sharia law was restricted to areas where it did not conflict with Soviet legislation, including on women’s rights.”

British socialist Dave Crouch has noted the many safeguards provided by Soviet authorities to prevent Sharia courts from acting contrary to principles of Soviet law, including the fact that use of Sharia courts was voluntary, their decisions in many fields were subject to review by Soviet legal bodies, and (from December 1922) the right of either party in a Sharia trial to appeal to Soviet courts. (“The Bolsheviks and Islam,” in International Socialism #110 (2006), p. 46.)

Crouch points out that there were also “instances in which Soviet officials were swayed by sharia law, convicting men for drinking alcohol or entering a house [containing] an unveiled woman.”

As to the underlying policy, acceptance of a role for Sharia law was implicit in the Soviets’ well-known “Appeal to All Toiling Muslims of Russia and the East,” adopted after only a month of Soviet rule. It stated, in part, “Henceforward your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions, are declared free and inviolable! Build your national life freely and without hindrance. It is your right.”

In November 1920, Joseph Stalin, as Soviet Commissar of Nationalities, declared, “The Soviet Government considers that the Sharia, as common law, is as fully authorised as that of any other of the peoples inhabiting Russia.” (Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-23, p. 25.)

Thanks also to Pierre for the update on the Indigènes de la République in France.

2. Did Lenin Change His Mind?

Bob Schwarz writes from New York…

In the final paragraphs of your excellent paper, you write: “the writings on this question of the Bolsheviks – above all, Lenin – in the years before 1917, in which Lenin speaks out sharply against federalism and positive action to promote minority cultures. Here we need to focus less on the Bolsheviks’ anticipations of the revolution and more on their response when it actually took place.”

Are you saying that Lenin’s position changed before and after 1917, that his approach to nationalism and national oppression improved following the revolution, perhaps under pressure of events? That hasn’t been my impression and, if I am correct in my reading of that paragraph, I’m curious how you would justify that idea.

Bob Schwarz

Bob poses a good question, to which we have no certain answer. As far as I know, Lenin did not comment after 1917 on his pre-1917 writings on the national question. Nor am I aware of any comment in his published writings on the aspects of Soviet nationalities policy that seem to contradict pre-1917 Bolshevik policies. However, everything he wrote on these issues after 1917 argued for sensitivity and concessions to the feelings of national minorities.

The policies applied by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution differed greatly in many decisive fields from their pre-revolutionary projections. Even the idea of a workers’ state organized as a federation was an innovation. This proves merely that the Bolsheviks were not dogmatists. They learned from the revolution and from the ideas current among working people, and they did not feel that doing so required any mea culpas or apologies.

A shift in policy does not necessarily mean a change in outlook. For example, during 1917 Lenin stopped calling for a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” That does not mean that he necessarily believed he had been wrong to use the slogan under tsarism.

We do not have full knowledge of Lenin’s views post-1917. But we do know this: Bolshevik national policy in the Soviet republics after 1917 differed significantly from what leading Bolsheviks advocated before the revolution. Many Marxists base their policies today solely on the pre-1917 positions. It is helpful for us all to engage with how the Bolsheviks responded to the challenge of revolution.

3. The Role of the Jewish Bund

Abraham Weizfeld writes from Canada…

Just so. An excellent summation of the pre-Stalinist Communist Party nationalities policy. A pity that Lenin abandoned his very own policy for that of Stalin. It is noteable however that Lenin retracted his support for Stalin over the Georgian nationalities treatment. But then again it is a pity that Bronstein (Trotsky) did not follow through on that initiative!

Nonetheless it is a pleasure to read of the various federalist initiatives undertaken, especially the recognition of the Jewish People as a nationality. This comes from the heritage of the Jewish Bund which advocated national-cultural autonomy. There is sufficient material available now to have included the Bund in this review. In particular it is to be remembered that Stalin put the two leaders of the Bund, Erlich and Alter, into prison for having formed up a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

Abraham Weizfeld

Abraham’s second paragraph raises a significant question. The role of revolutionaries from the Bund in helping to shape Soviet nationalities policy is all the more significant given their persistent disagreement with the Bolsheviks on national issues before 1917.

My “Russian Revolution and National Freedom” referred briefly to their contribution: “A Jewish commission of the Soviet government administered hundreds of Yiddish-language schools scattered among several national republics. Many leaders of this body came from the Bund, a Jewish Socialist current that had advocated such structures, against Bolshevik objections, before 1917.”

For a fuller discussion, see Jeremy Smith’s “The Bolsheviks and the National Question,” especially pages 110-15.

4. The Birth of Soviet Armenia

Rupen Savoulian writes from Australia…

Thank you John for this wonderful article. I read it over at the website for Links magazine, where it was reprinted.

I think your essay is a necessary antidote, not only against the distortions of bureaucratised socialism, but also against the unremitting tide of anti-socialist propaganda and distortions by the rightwing emigre communities in Australia. Most of the Armenians here are fanatic, dyed-in-the-wool anticommunists, and thus completely malign the Soviet nationalities policy as ‘Russian oppression’.

I think that your essay rebuffs the slanderous falsifications of the émigré psychopaths and lunatics, and presents the case for socialist national evolution. The many achievements of the Soviet period in Armenia are being neglected, and so socialists around the world need to speak up against this campaign of disinformation.

Well done John.

Rupen Savoulian

Rupen is right; the achievements of the Armenian people under Soviet rule should not be neglected. First among these was the very survival of an Armenian national homeland, at a time when most Armenians had been driven into exile. The government of independent Armenia sought Soviet aid at a moment when this last outpost of Armenian rule was being overrun by the Turkish army. Ron Suny notes that the establishment of a Soviet republic was a “measure of last resort by a defeated, discouraged, and disintegrating Dashnak government of independent Armenia.” (Looking toward Ararat, pp. 130, 138)

According to Suny, an outstanding Western historian of twentieth-century Armenia, Soviet rule there got off to a bad start but then shifted in 1921 toward greater sensitivity to national feeling. Arguing for rectification in 1921, Lenin pleaded with Communists in the Caucasian republics “to practice more moderation and caution and show more readiness to make concessions.”

Things changed for the worse for the Armenians and other minority nationalities, of course, after the triumph of Stalinism.

– – – – –

I hope that the important contributions of our four readers will encourage other comment on these issues.

John Riddell

  1. Barry Sheppard permalink

    Excellent article, John.

    In 1913, Stalin (when he was a revolutionist) drafted a thesis on the nationalities question in the Czarist empire which was approved by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This has been used by some revolutionary socialists to refute Lenin’s and Trotsky’s post-1917 views (adopted and developed later by the U.S. SWP) that the African Americans in the United States constitute an oppressed nationality. Others, especially the leaders of the American International Socialist Organization, also reject Lenin and Trotsky on this question.

    How does this relate to the Bolshevik’s developing views following the Revolution?

  2. I do consider all of the ideas you have introduced for your post. They’re really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very brief for beginners. May just you please prolong them a little from next time? Thank you for the post.

    • Thank you for your encouraging comment. The articles on this site are, in most cases, conceived of as ~working papers~ — that is, a preliminary text for subsequent elaboration, written to be accessible to a non-specialist readership. Comments and suggestions are much appreciated. I suggest you check out the references for articles on topics of interest, which in most cases contain relevant material for further reading. In this case, see in particular the readings for Nationality’s Role: Smith, Martin, and Suny. John Riddell

  3. Jacob Richter permalink

    Given Turkey’s alignment with the West, I wonder why the Soviets under Stalin or after never bothered to denounce the Armenian genocide.

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