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Should Communists ally with revolutionary nationalism?

January 7, 2018

Part 2 of ‘The Comintern and Asia 1919-25’

See also Part 1, Toward a global anti-imperialist strategy.
Part 3, Fruits and perils of the ‘bloc within’


Turar Ryskulov (1894-1938)

By John Riddell. 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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5]

In fact, Lenin, in his report, applied the term “bourgeois-democratic” very broadly, including the peasants, “who represent bourgeois-capitalist relations.”[6] 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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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 east

Relations 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.[12]

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.”[13]

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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

Organizing revolutionary women of the East


Presentation to the Baku congress of theses on liberation of women in the East.

Fifty-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.[17]

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). [18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

Freedom from British domination

While calling for “the liberation of all humanity from the yoke of capitalist and imperialist slavery,” the congress aimed its fire chiefly against Britain, whose colonialist armies then dominated the entire southern and south-western tier of Asian nations. It issued a celebrated call for “Go forward as one man in a holy war against the British conqueror.”[21]

The Baku Congress contributed to forcing British withdrawal from central Asia during the year that followed, but the result was a consolidation of national capitalist states in Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey, and an ebbing of revolutionary ferment in the region. The Soviet republic’s treaties with these countries in early 1921 marked advances for both the Soviet state and the cause of anti-imperialism but also a restabilization of capitalist rule south of the Soviet borders.[22]

The British threat had been most acute in Turkey. British and allied Greek forces faced off against the uprising led by Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk), a national movement of the “reformist” variety identified by the Second Congress. The congress received a statement of greetings from the Kemalist movement, to which it did not reply. Nonetheless, in another context, the congress noted that the “broad nationalist-revolutionary movement in Turkey is directed only against foreign oppressors,“ offering no solution to the suffering of the Turkish masses. It urged Turkish workers and peasants to join in “independent organizations to carry the cause of emancipation through to the end” — an accurate description of the path subsequently taken by Communists in Turkey.[23]

The Soviet government supported Kemal’s rebel government with arms and advisors and signed a treaty with it in 1921, repudiating concessions extorted in the past by the Tsarist rulers. Soviet aid contributed to Turkey’s decisive victory in 1922 over the occupying powers. The 1922 Comintern congress hailed this outcome as a gain for the Soviet republic and the first breach in the Versailles system of treaties imposed by the victorious powers after the world war.[24] Meanwhile, however, Kemal’s regime harshly repressed Turkey’s Communists.[25]

The Soviet government faced a similar choice in Iran. Britain effectively occupied Iran in 1919-20, using it as a staging area for attacks on the Soviet republic. As the Red Army pressed back, it entered an Iranian province, Gilan, where it protected a left-leaning insurgent regime. After the expulsion of British forces and the signing of a Soviet-Iranian treaty in 1921, the Soviets withdrew their army, leading to the overthrow of insurgent rule.

Some historians have maintained that treaties of this sort reflected a “political-ethical dilemma,” a clash of “ideological and pragmatic interests.” Comintern leaders strongly maintained that Soviet and world-revolutionary interests were one, and that the victory for Iran and Turkey over invading powers was a gain for toilers everywhere. At the Comintern’s 1921 Third Congress, however, some delegates raised their doubts regarding Soviet state influence in the International.[26] Strains of this type arise in every sphere of revolutionary work and are inherent in the very project of unifying all toilers in a common movement. Nonetheless, the Third Congress debate anticipated what was to become a decisive issue in years to come. After Lenin’s death, the Comintern’s work was increasingly disrupted by such a “clash of interests,” especially regarding shifts in Soviet diplomatic and political policy.

Meanwhile, in British India, the dominant region of South Asia, mass resistance to British rule, firmly under bourgeois leadership, diminished for a time after 1922. Communist nuclei in different parts of India were subjected to severe repression between 1921 and 1924, particularly through three well-publicized conspiracy trials, and the nascent movement was driven underground. In 1924, the Comintern gave its support to Roy’s proposal of building a People’s Party in India as a revolutionary nationalist alternative to the bourgeois-led Indian National Congress.[27] It was not until 1925, at the close of the period under consideration here, that a conference of about 500 participants founded the Communist Party of India as a national movement.

Latin America was not much discussed in the Comintern’s first five years, and it was not embraced in habitual references to the East. True, in the Second Congress (1920), U.S. delegate Louis Fraina declared that “all of Latin America must be regarded as a colony of the United States” and as “the colonial base of the United States.” At the Baku Congress, his compatriot John Reed made essentially the same point with reference to the Mexican revolution (1910-20), the only analysis of this upheaval in early Comintern proceedings. Only in the late 1920s did Latin America come into the Comintern’s focus as a vital arena of anti-imperialist struggle.[28]

In the Comintern’s early years, the challenge of forging anti-imperialist unity was posed in practical terms above all in Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) and China.

Continued in part 3: Fruits and perils of the ‘bloc within’

Index of Comintern-related articles


[1]. Riddell, First Congress, 261.

[2]. Riddell, Second Congress, 1:38-9, 123-5, 118. Regarding the use of ironic quotation marks (on “advanced” but not on “civilized”), it should be noted that the text originated as a stenographic transcript

[3]. Riddell, Second Congress, 1:213.

[4]. Ibid., 213.

[5]. Duncan Halles, The Comintern: A History of the Third International (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011), 50; Claudín, Comintern, 265.

[6]. Riddell, Second Congress, 1:213.

[7]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 395.

[8]. Riddell, Second Congress, 1:215. The terms “backward” and “advanced” were used in the Comintern era to designate the level of development of the forces of production in a given society.

[9]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 327 (Zetkin), 705 (Boudengha); Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker, eds., José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology (New York: Monthly Review, 2011).

[10]. The Russian term “korenizatsiia,” described here as “affirmative action,” is often translated as “indigenization.” See Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001). Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, eds., A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. See also John Riddell, “The Russian Revolution and National Freedom,” 2008, at <>.

[11]. V.I. Lenin, “Letter to the Congress,” in Lenin’s Final Fight: Speeches and Writings 1922-23 (New York: Pathfinder, 1995) 196.

[12]. Riddell, Baku Congress, 13.

[13]. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 (London: Pelican Books, 1966), 3:261.

[14]. Riddell, Baku Congress, 30, 242-3.

[15]. Narbutabekov was a left-wing nationalist reformer in Turkestan who rallied to support Soviet power. Ryskulov took part in the Kazakh uprising against tsarist power in 1916. In 1917 he joined the Bolsheviks, where he pressed for more autonomy for Soviet Asian peoples. Head of Turkestan government 1923-25. Both leaders were executed by Stalin in 1938.

[16]. For the delegates’ protest statement, the Political Bureau resolution, and one of the statements implementing its decision, see Riddell, Baku Congress, 292-309.

[17]. No biographical information is available on Bulach Tatu or Najiye Hanum. Khaver Shabanova-Karayeva, 19 years old when the congress met, had graduated from medical school and served during the civil war in the Red Army. She was active in organizing Azerbaijani women and served in the Council for Propaganda and Action set up by the Baku Congress. Jailed during frame-up purges in 1937, she was later freed and readmitted to the CP. She died in 1958.

[18]. Riddell, Baku Congress, 25, 158, 204-7.

[19]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 870. Of Tatar origin, Kasparova was born in 1888, worked as a teacher, served in the Red Army, member of the Comintern International Women’s Secretariat, later supported Left Opposition against Stalinism, jailed during Stalin frame-up purges, murdered in jail.

[20]. Riddell, Baku Congress, 52. In the Fourth Congress, by comparison, Stalin’s victims included 72% of Communists mentioned in the proceedings and within his reach. See Riddell, Fourth Congress, 54

[21]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 231.

[22]. The Soviet treaties were signed as follows: Iran, 26 February; Afghanistan, 28 February; Turkey, 16 March; Britain, 16 March. In addition, the Soviet republics of Armenia and Georgia were established on 2 December 1920 and 25 February 1921, respectively.

[23]. Riddell, Baku Congress, 129-30. The congress resolution on Turkey did not refer directly to the Kemalist current. It was framed as a reply to another Turkish bourgeois nationalist current, that led by Enver Pasha, which had also addressed the congress.

[24]. Riddell, Fourth Congress, 28.

[25]. See the strong indictment of the Kemalist movement by Turkish delegate Sadrettin Celal Antel in Riddell, Fourth Congress, 616-19.

[26]. See especially the speech by Hempel (Jan Appel) in Riddell, Third Congress, 691-5. Speeches by Bergmann (Fritz Meyer), Alexandra Kollontai, and Henrietta Roland Holst expressed similar misgivings from different angles. The main reply was given by Leon Trotsky (683-8). Some years later, Trotsky was to pinpoint the divergence between the interests of the ruling Soviet elite and world revolution as a central factor in the Comintern’s degeneration.

[27]. Datta Gupta, Comintern and India, pp. 131-34.

[28]. Riddell, Second Congress, 1:229 (Fraina); Riddell, Baku Congress, 133 (Reed).

One Comment
  1. Bernhard permalink

    Further reading:

    Disclaimer: I’m not a member or a representative of the Spartacist League/International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) and post this on my own initiative.

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