The colonial question

Print edition : February 28, 2020

November 1917: Bolshevik soldiers marching through the streets of Moscow. Photo: Corbis via Getty Images

By rigorously tracing the evolving position of the colonial question in communist thinking and practice from 1917 to 1924, this collection makes an invaluable contribution to understanding the world communist movement of the early 20th century.

“WE Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuators of the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations-from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.” This self-description in the Comintern Manifesto (March 1919) referred to its predecessors; the First international had outlined a future course of action and the Second International organised millions of workers. The tendency culminated in “The Third International... the International of revolutionary realisation, the International of the deed.”

The anti-imperialist premise

This book is a part of the centennial commemoration of the revolutionary anti-imperialist Left internationalism that led to the establishment of the Communist International (1919-43) following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Though the internationalist stream was present among radical socialists and communists of the 19th century, the collapse of the Second International on the eve of the First World War signalled the triumph of a social imperialist leadership upholding national chauvinism to expand the interests of monopoly capital. The end of the war generated an insurrectionary conjuncture from below. The victory of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 terrified the metropolitan bourgeoisie. In their colonies and semi-colonies, the revolution’s anti-imperialist promise of emancipation generated an immediate enthusiastic popular response. The invasion and civil war unleashed on Russia by counter-revolutionary forces backed by Britain and other imperialist powers led to the mobilisation of a worldwide support for the Bolsheviks. In 1919, as the civil war raged, the Communist International (also known as the “Third International” and “Comintern”) emerged as a platform for spreading an alternative vision of society; the aim was to free the world from the stranglehold of the empires of capital.

The collection under review contains Comintern documents in Russian, German and English put together by John Riddell from 1983 to 2019. He is the key figure of the “Comintern Publishing Project”, a team of socialist researchers who have taken up the mammoth task of making available the Comintern’s wide-ranging engagements. In the pages of this book appear Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Grigory Yevseyevich Zinoviev, Karl Radek, Mikhail Borodin as well as M.N. Roy, Sen Katayama, Ho Chi Minh, Hendricus Sneevliet, Tan Malaka, Baba Akhunde Samilov, Avetis Sultanzade and others who were directly engaged with the colonial question. Their interventions enabled the Comintern to open up not just one but multiple questions regarding the liberation of the colonies and semi-colonies. The post-war mass upsurge in China and the spread of the communist-led movements from Vietnam to Korea, India to Philippines, Iran to Egypt were actively assisted by the emphasis on ending the rule of a capitalism-driven imperialist and racist world order. The emancipation of women in the colonies and black people in the United States, the settler colonialist ambitions of the British-backed Zionists and the entwined questions of gender, race and class received the attention of the Marxist-Leninist activists of the Comintern. They also responded to nationalism and pan-Islamism as other political models challenging imperialism and adopted a flexible perspective while never losing sight of their complexities.

The book has 11 sections, each comprising a selection of documents from the early years of the Comintern (1917-24) on the colonial/semi-colonial conditions and the ways in which they could be dismantled. The earliest documents related to the conjuncture of World War, revolution and civil war.

The Bolshevik government established on November 7, 1917, issued, within a month of its existence, two decrees declaring self-rule for the “national minorities” and the predominantly Muslim colonised subjects of the former Tsarist Empire. The first decree (November 15) signed by Lenin and Stalin abolished “any and all privileges and constraints based on nationality or religion”. The second decree (“Appeal to all toiling Muslims of Russia and the East”, December 7) was addressed to “Muslims of the East! Persians, Turks, Arabs and Indians! All you whose lives and property, whose freedom and homelands were for centuries merchandise for trade by rapacious European plunderers! All you whose countries the robbers who began the war now want to divide among themselves!” The decree concluded: “Do not delay in throwing off the ancient oppressors of your homelands. Do not permit them to plunder your native lands any longer. You yourselves must be the masters in your own land. You yourselves must build your lives in your own image and likeness. You have this right, because your fate is in your own hands.”

This appeal to overthrow colonialism was duly noted by the imperialist overlords and cited as a justification for a British-backed invasion of Soviet Russia immediately after the First World War formally ended in November 1918. This earned the Bolsheviks support from pan-Islamists and anti-imperialist nationalists. Their interest in Bolshevism as a radical egalitarian current started growing. The “Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the World”, drafted by Trotsky, was adopted on March 6, 1919, by 51 delegates of different countries during the final day of the First Congress of the Communist International held in Moscow in 1919. The manifesto dissected the role of Britain and other imperialist states in triggering mass death and destitution in the shape of a world war.

Referring to the Versailles Treaty settlements, the document uncovered the irony of the moment: “Today, when Europe is covered with debris and smoking ruins, the worst pyromaniacs in history are busy seeking out the criminals responsible for the war. In their wake follow their servants—professors, members of parliament, journalists, social patriots and other political pimps of the bourgeoisie.” Alongside the toppled dynasties of Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, it held Britain, France, Italy and the U.S. as war provocateurs standing out in their “boundless criminality”. It exposed the expansionist appetites of the United States: “According to the American standards of gambling, Wilson’s wager was not large, but it was the last one down and consequently assured him of the jackpot… At best, Wilson’s programme merely aims at changing the labels with regard to colonial slavery.”

The manifesto observed: “The last war, which was by and large a war for colonies, was at the same time a war conducted with the help of colonies. The colonial populations were drawn into the European war on an unprecedented scale. Indians, Blacks, Arabs and Malagasy fought on the territories of Europe—for the sake of what? For the right to remain the slaves of Britain and France. Never before has the infamy of capitalist rule in the colonies been delineated so clearly; never before has the problem of colonial slavery been posed so sharply as it is today.”

Referring to the “open insurrections and revolutionary ferment in all the colonies”, the manifesto cited the street battles in Ireland against British occupation, the limits of liberty, equality and fraternity in Madagascar and Annam (Vietnam) where the military strength of the Third Republic of France was deployed to suppress “the uprisings of colonial slaves”, and India where “the revolutionary movement has not subsided for a single day”. As massive labour strikes engulfed the industrial pockets of colonised Asia, the British government brought in armoured cars to deal with the workers of Bombay. The colonised had gone beyond the straitjacket of the Versailles settlements through their actions: “The colonial question has been thus posed in its fullest measure not only on the maps at the diplomatic congress in Paris but also within the colonies themselves.” As an alternative to wage-slavery and colonial servitude, the manifesto proposed spreading soviet power/workers’ councils as a flexible form of mass self-liberation from below.

Traversing the world

The Comintern representatives traversed the world after this congress in search of comrades from Mexico to Australia. When the Second Congress of the Comintern met in July-August 1920, two days were devoted to the colonial question. M.N. Roy’s debate with Lenin led to the adoption of both their theses in modified forms.

While Lenin had put crucial emphasis on Comintern’s responsibility to assist the oppressed people of colonised nations to overthrow imperialism by supporting “bourgeois-democratic” movements, Roy raised the question of class differentiation underlying the colonial question. He argued that since the super-profits of the imperialist ruling classes came from draining the colonies, the emancipation of the colonies would stop this supply and bring about their downfall within the boundaries of the capitalist nation states. On the other hand, building mass organisations of workers and peasants was necessary in the colonies since the class composition of the nationalist leadership would make them betray the masses in favour of the local capitalists and landlords. A framework based on an alliance of workers and peasants to overthrow the empires of capital and emancipate the colonised masses was put forward. This found an echo in the speeches of delegates representing Korea, Iran, Indonesia, Ireland, Latin America and the “racial minorities” such as African-American and Jewish people, who were facing lynching and pogroms. While they raised specific conditions, the consensus was on mass liberation of the colonised subjects along class lines. The Congress of the People of the East was held soon afterwards in the city of Baku, the famous trading post of Caspian oil in Russian Turkestan.

The civil war fomented by the imperialist powers against the Bolshevik government had folded up in European Russia by this time but was still raging in Central Asia. The Baku Congress therefore declared a “holy war” against imperialism and racism; it demanded that radical socialists organising the working class of imperialist countries should extend every assistance to the struggle of the oppressed in the colonies, the vast majority of the world population. Women delegates, especially Najiye Hanum (Turkey) and Bibinur (Turkestan), spoke on the need for social, political and economic emancipation of women. Bibinur pointed out that eastern women, as colonised subjects and victims of feudal patriarchy, were exploited “ten times more” than men. The agrarian question was discussed keeping in mind the peasant producers of Turkestan and the rest of Asia. The stress was on the dissolution of privately owned large landed estates and the rapid adoption of a redistributive land-to-the-tiller programme. The victory over the Amir of Bokhara and the retreat of the counter-revolutionary Basmachi forces supported by the British Empire were celebrated. Fourteen representatives from India and 55 women were to be found among 1,891 delegates, the majority of whom were from different communist organisations.

The Baku Congress resolutions were translated and circulated in Farsi, Turkish and Arabic. The British government was disturbed by the Baku Congress and declared on October 1 that the gathering was nothing short of an attempt to destabilise “British power in Asia”. The collapse of the counter-revolutionary forces meant Britain and other imperialist powers could not continue the war against Bolshevism on the soil of Soviet territories. A peace treaty disguised as a trade agreement was signed in March 1921, giving the British state an opportunity to extricate itself from a conflict it had triggered but could not win.

When the Third Congress of the Comintern met in June 1921, the emergency conditions of the civil war to protect Soviet power from imperialism were not present. Yet imperialism, though weakened, had also managed to consolidate its gains through the Anglo-French-U.S. victory in the First World War. So the colonial question continued to be raised. Sixty-eight delegates, including 41 from Soviet Asia and three from Africa, were present. Though Comintern leaders raised the colonial question, very little time was devoted to it. Only one session of the congress, scheduled for discussion on anti-imperialist struggles in the colonies, was hurriedly held on the final day, before the closing session. Roy strongly protested against this neglect and was supported by a French delegate, Charles-André Julien.

The positions from 1920 were, however, reiterated on a firm footing. Lenin argued in “the impending decisive battles in the world revolution, the movement of the majority of the population of the globe, initially directed towards national liberation, will turn against capitalism and imperialism and will, perhaps, play a much more revolutionary part than we expect”. Zinoviev felt the question of colonial liberation had to be taken up not just in theory but also in practice. He laid stress on the revolutions in Asia, which would act as a precondition for and pave way for the victory of the proletarian world revolution. Clara Zetkin spoke on the participation of women in the struggle for anti-colonial social emancipation. Roy argued the World War had enabled Britain and the U.S. to emerge as the dominant states within the structure of world capitalism. They had divided the world between them, reducing the European big powers to a position of material dependency. Future struggles in the colonies and semi-colonies, including China, had to keep in mind the routes by which these big powers could consolidate their strength.

Between January 21 and February 2, 1922, the Comintern organised “The First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East” to give a practical shape to the movement for colonial emancipation from below; the opening session was in Irkutsk and the following sessions met in Moscow and Petrograd. In the presence of Chinese nationalists, Safarov emphasised the need for conditional support to the Kuomintang while building “proletarian” organisations of workers and peasants in China. This made way for a more comprehensive discussion on the colonial question in the next Comintern Congress. In November 1922, during the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, Tan Malaka felt a flexible position had to be adopted vis-à-vis Pan-Islam. He argued that experiences in Turkey and elsewhere had prompted the Comintern to reject any alliance. However, from India to Indonesia, the Pan-Islamist current was a vehicle of national liberation, and activists/supporters of parties such as Sarekat Islam could be persuaded to accept socialist ideas through joint programmes and movements. When the chair attempted to curtail his speech, Tan Malaka pointed out that he had travelled for 40 days. His humour won the day; he recalled that while negotiating with the leaders of Sarekat Islam the communists had said: “Yes, your God is mighty, but your God has said that on this earth the railway workers are even mightier!... The railway workers are God’s executive committee in this world.”

The limits of Pan-Asianism-inflected nationalism were discussed. Roy sharply emphasised the need to form communist parties in the colonies, independent of the nationalist movements. He cited Turkey as an example where the military regime of Kemal Pasha was “brutally” repressing those who advocated the social interests of workers and peasants. He argued that only the communists could struggle to replace “the type of nationalism that fights only to economically develop and politically reinforce the native bourgeoisie”. Safarov also advocated this position and hoped an independent party was emerging in Bombay and elsewhere. Sen Katayama and the delegates from Japan and China condemned Japanese imperialism and the threat it posed to Soviet power.

Race and class

Race as a key ingredient of bourgeois social control and labour practice was stressed upon. Tahar Boudengha of Tunisia pointed at the racism of left-wing French origin colonial settlers in Algeria; they called themselves communists while denouncing the Comintern’s support for the liberation of Algeria and Tunisia, subordinating colonial freedom to revolutionary victory in France and heaping racist insult on the Arab population. Delegates from Iran and Turkey felt the communist parties of imperialist countries neglected the colonial question and the resolution of the Second International, which urged them to campaign for colonial freedom. Like Tan Malaka, Boudengha also supported a flexible alliance with Pan-Islam and felt the anti-communists in the ranks of the Islamists could be exposed if they were urged to distribute one-tenth of their property in keeping with Islamic principles. William Earsman from Australia also raised the question of racism and felt a Pan-Pacific Congress of workers was necessary. As migrant workers travelling in this region faced the entwined regime of racist harassment and low wages, they needed to be organised through anti-racist unions. Later, the Pan-Pacific Secretariat of the Comintern tried to take this position forward.

These threads were reiterated by a young Ho Chi Minh (then known by his original name, Nguyen Ai Quoc) in the Fifth Congress of the Comintern held in Moscow in July 1924. Combining sharp insight, depth and social humanity, he reiterated the need to build a class-conscious anti-colonial liberation struggle. He criticised the European parties for their “almost worthless role” in combating imperialism, the sole exception being the Russian Party under a Leninist leadership. While comparing British and French colonial empires, he indicted them for the daily brutality enforced by racism to facilitate material drain. Coming to French colonial capitalism, he offered a searing portrait of “unremitting exploitation” stretching from Africa to Asia and hoped “this congress will be the turning point”.

By rigorously tracing the evolving position of the colonial question in communist thinking and practice from 1917 to 1924, this collection has made an invaluable contribution to an understanding of the world communist movement of the early twentieth century. After 1924, militant and systematic moves were to have a direct impact on decolonisation and revolutionary movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The early Comintern discussions, recorded in this book, reveal the importance given to the emancipation of the colonies and semi-colonies by the Bolshevik leaders. This was followed by expanding analysis and emphasis on practical work by the representatives from the colonial world. By pointing at the divisions within the colonised societies and the tendency of the “national” bourgeoisie, landlords and other proprietor class segments to betray the masses, they were collectively steering Marxism-Leninism in new theoretical and practical directions. It was this crucial early position which would shape anti-imperialist revolutionary internationalism as a “deed” of the Third International.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay teaches history at Jadavpur University.