Comrades in arms

The October Revolution had a profound impact on the developing world. The people of the global South, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, looked to Moscow for support in their struggle to free themselves form the yoke of colonial rule.

Published : Dec 06, 2017 12:30 IST

Petrograd, June 19, 1920:  Lenin giving a speech at the second Comintern congress in Uritski Palace.

Petrograd, June 19, 1920: Lenin giving a speech at the second Comintern congress in Uritski Palace.

The Bolshevik Revolution cast an instant spell on oppressed people all over the world, especially in Africa and Asia which were then under almost total colonial domination. In 1919, the Russian Communist Party created a new body called the Comintern (Communist International). It was tasked with the job of coordinating with organisations around the world that had also embraced socialist and progressive ideology. The Comintern was also a response to the Second International, which had let down the working class in the First World War by supporting the war efforts of the imperialist countries. The Comintern, under Vladimir Lenin’s guidance, took the decision “of supporting every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but also in deeds, of demanding that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies”.

Lenin had in a note to the Comintern observed that “the capitalist powers of Europe cannot maintain their existence for even a short time” without control of their vast colonies for exploitation. At the first Comintern conference, the Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy argued that unquestioning support to all anti-colonial movements by communists could give nationalistic and reactionary leaders credibility at the expense of workers’ and peasants’ movements in the colonies. Roy’s “supplementary draft thesis” was given serious consideration by Lenin when the Comintern formulated its policies. Communist parties were soon formed in many countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

The Russian Revolution and the creation of the Comintern had an immediate impact on intellectuals and others who were in the forefront of the anti-imperialist movement at the time. The Comintern had called for complete independence of all African countries. The Comintern’s call was hailed by radical African-American intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey. DuBois was the head of the Pan-African Congress. Lenin organised the Congress of the East, which was held in 1920 in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. The goal was to build a revolutionary Marxist movement of the exploited and oppressed people living under colonialism.

“Here in Baku, on the borders of Europe and Asia, we, representatives of tens of millions of workers and peasants of Asia and Africa in revolt, showed the world our wounds, showed the world the mark of the whips on our back. The traces left by the chains on our feet and hands,” the manifesto issued in Baku said. An appeal was issued to the workers of Europe and Asia to unite under the banner of the Communist International “for a common struggle, a common victory”.

Pan-African perspective

The Comintern had adopted a pan-African perspective at its 1922 Conference emphasising the key linkage between colonialism and racism and, therefore, the need for the communist movement to build strong relationships with the struggles of the black people in the United States, the Caribbean and the African continent. Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, in his report to the 17th Party Congress, said that the Soviet Union “must be true to the end to the cause of proletarian internationalism, to the cause of the fraternal alliance of the proletarians of all countries”.

The Comintern was wound up in 1943 after the Soviet Union entered into an alliance with the U.S. and England during the course of the Second World War. There was considerable controversy about the decision as many communist parties had to change their tactical line almost overnight for the greater cause of assisting the war effort against the Nazis and preserving socialism in the Soviet Union. The Comintern had described the Second World War as “a people’s war”. Many leading communists in the colonies were not happy with Moscow’s decision. Some left the party.

During its existence, the Comintern did play a significant role in fostering solidarity between the black diaspora and the people of the African continent who were struggling to free themselves form the yoke of colonial rule. Almost all the leaders of liberation movements and prominent intellectuals on the African continent either were communists or were inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Nelson Mandela, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Khwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta drew inspiration from the October Revolution. Kenyatta, the leader of Kenya’s independence struggle and its first President, in fact studied in Moscow’s Communist University of the Toilers of the East in the 1920s. His organisational talents were spotted by George Padmore, an American Communist and a leading ideologue of the pan-Africanist movement.

Garvey had described Lenin as “one of the greatest characters in history”. Speaking at a memorial meeting after Lenin’s death in 1924, Garvey said that the black people “mourn for Lenin because Russia promised great hope not only for the Negro people but to all the weaker people of the world”. Although Garvey did not belong to the Communist Party, his speech impressed a young Vietnamese by the name of Nguyen Sinh Cung, who was working in the U.S. at the time. He later on came to be known as Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the decolonisation struggle in Indo-China.

It was under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership that a colonial power, France, was first defeated in the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Ho Chi Minh became a communist at a young age. The Vietnamese under communist leadership, then went on to defeat the U.S., the most powerful nation in the world. Losing the Vietnam War has been the most humiliating military defeat the U.S. has suffered so far. The material help provided by the Soviet Union played a big part in the historic victory of Dien Bien Phu and consequent triumphs of most of the liberation movements in the developing world.

It was after the Second World War that the Soviet Union could play an even more decisive role in the decolonisation struggle. Under Stalin, Moscow provided direct military aid only to countries that were contiguous to the boundaries of the Soviet Union. After Nikita Khrushchev took over, the policy changed. The Soviet Union started providing arms and financial assistance to “neutral” countries such as India while promoting the idea of a “zone of peace”. Unlike the West, the Soviet Union welcomed the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The Cuban leader Fidel Castro described the Soviet Union as a “natural ally” of NAM.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was no longer isolated globally after the liberation of Eastern Europe. The communist victory in China saw the further consolidation of communism. Communist parties set up during the Comintern era were now in the forefront of the liberation struggles in many countries of Africa and Asia. Most of the nationalist leaders who came to power in Anglophone and Francophone countries could be described as proponents of a centre-Left ideology inspired by Marxism Leninism. Nkrumah (Ghana), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) and Sekou Toure (Guinea) are examples. “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added to you,” Nkrumah said in an oft-quoted speech in 1949. “Hence the need for a socialistic society.” The British and the French were only interested in giving limited self-rule to their colonies in Africa and Asia after the end of the Second World War.

Most of the leaders who were in the forefront of the independence struggle in Africa and Asia were determined that the state would play the key role in the economic transformation of these countries. The USSR stepped in to support many mega projects on the African continent, like the building of the Aswan dam in Egypt. “Capitalism is too complicated a system for a newly independent state,” Nkrumah said. In varying degrees, other leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru of India and Sukarno of Indonesia shared this viewpoint. Nkrumah was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962 for his efforts to unite the African continent against continued plunder by the West.

Funding radical movements

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was helping other more radical movements in Africa with funding, training and arms. One of the earliest beneficiaries of Soviet aid was the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria. By 1965, the Soviet Union had given more than $9 billion in aid to developing countries. Cuba, Vietnam and other countries that had become part of the socialist camp were given preferential terms of trade by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was quick to step in when countries were subjected to military attack. Its intervention was critical in thwarting the imperialist game plan in the Korean peninsula and Vietnam. It played an important role in the 1956 Suez crisis, which had pitted Egypt against two old imperial powers, England and France, along with their ally in the region, Israel. For the next decade and a half, the socialist bloc helped Egypt to stand up to the West in many ways. The Soviet Union was the main ally of the Arabs in all the major wars they fought against Israel.

Within the Arab world, Communist parties were gaining wide acceptance, with those in Iraq and Syria among the strongest in the region. Various Palestinian groups, including the Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), got strong support from Moscow. In South Yemen, communists were in power for more than a decade soon after the country became independent in 1967. Factionalism destroyed the party and its hold over power. In Iran, communists under the banner of the Tudeh Party had played an important role in the politics of the country since its founding in 1941. The party supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh during his confrontation with the West. The Tudeh was a special target for American and British intelligence agencies during the Cold War. Thousands of its members and supporters were either tortured in jail or killed.

In neighbouring Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was invited to send military help after the “Saur” revolution of 1978. In Asia and Africa, the Soviet Union intervened only when it was invited by the governments of the region to do so.

The revolution in Afghanistan led by Afghan communists had held prospects for the country to break free from feudalism and medieval practices, which had bedeviled it for centuries. But it was not to be. Many historians and commentators are of the view that the military intervention by the Soviets in Afghanistan was a factor in the collapse of the USSR. Afghanistan regressed again, and the world witnessed the birth of new and dangerous forms of terrorist groupings that were initially fostered by the West in Afghanistan.

Helping Cuba

Soviet help was invaluable for Cuba as it withstood the impact of the U.S. economic blockade. Fidel Castro had said that “without the existence of the Soviet Union, it would have been impossible for the Cuban revolution to exist”. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 had brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war. But that crisis, and the strong military and political relations with the Soviet bloc, guaranteed that U.S. would not contemplate another invasion of the island. It was after the failed 1961 “Bay of Pigs” invasion by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed mercenaries that the Soviet Union gave iron-clad guarantees for Cuba’s security.

After that, Cuba also played a big role in the decolonisation struggles raging in different parts of the world, in tandem with the Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc. In the early 1960s, Che Guevara went to the Congo in an abortive attempt to unite the progressive forces in their fight against the puppet regime installed by the West. The writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote: “In that fleeting, anonymous passage through Africa, Che Guevara was to sow a seed that no one will destroy.” The CIA-orchestrated assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese Prime Minster, just after the country gained independence in 1960 galvanised public opinion against the West on the African continent. Lumumba University came up in Moscow in 1962 in memory of one of the greatest sons of Africa. The university catered to students from the colonies and the developing world. Many of its graduates went on to become leaders and activists in their home countries. Liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa gained momentum after the events in Congo. In neighbouring Angola, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by the Marxist intellectual Augustinho Neto was backed by Moscow and Havana.

Overthrow of Allende

The 1960s and 1970s was a time when the Cold War between the West and the Socialist bloc was at its height. The West had resorted to extreme measures to thwart the will of the people in many countries that had voted in left-wing governments. In Chile, the popularly elected left-wing government of Salvadore Allende was overthrown in a bloody coup. In countries such as Brazil and Argentina, the army, with backing from the U.S., staged coups to oust left-wing leaders or stop them from assuming power. In Nicaragua, Soviet military and food aid was rushed to the Sandinistas after the Ronald Reagan administration armed the right-wing Contras and imposed a blockade. Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate, had said that the Soviet Union was a “bastion of peace and creativity” and a model for the people of Latin America. The October Revolution was a source of inspiration for many other Latin American intellectual and writers such as Marquez and Julio Cortazar.

Che Guevara, who had gone to Bolivia to mobilise a guerilla force to organise the peasantry to rise up against the U.S. supported right-wing governments in the region, was captured and killed on the orders of the CIA in 1967. His death was not in vain. Che Guevara’s dreams about Africa were partially coming to fruition in the 1970s. In the Horn of Africa, dramatic changes were witnessed. The pro-Western monarchy in Ethiopia was overthrown and replaced by a left-wing government. Soviet military help, coupled with the presence of Cuban soldiers on the ground, helped the Ethiopian army stave off an invasion from Somalia. Somalia, under Siad Barre, had shifted to the Western camp after initially embracing a socialist ideology.

In Mozambique, the left-wing Frelimo took power after waging a protracted guerilla war against the Portuguese colonisers and their regional allies at the time, which included the apartheid regime in South Africa. The going was tougher for the MPLA in Angola. With Cuban and Russian help, the MPLA managed to hold on to the capital and the resource-rich province of Gabinda. The U.S. and its proxies propped up the genocidal Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA (National Union of Total Independence of Angola) rebel force. For almost two decades after independence, the country was caught in a vicious civil war. But the conflict in Angola had some positive consequences. It was the defeat of South African military forces in the famous 1988 battle of Cue to Cuenovale by a combined Cuban and Angolan force that changed the course of history in southern Africa.

The battle was the biggest fought on African soil since the Second World War. After the battle, the myth of the South African army’s invincibility on the African continent was broken. The South African army withdrew from Angola. The apartheid regime had to let go of Namibia, hastening the decolonisation process on the African continent. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that South Africa itself became free, but the contribution of the USSR and other socialist countries to ridding the country of apartheid rule was crucial.

The African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party had a long-standing relationship with the Soviet Union. From the early 1960s the Soviet Union had provided military aid to the Umkhonto wa Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. The October Revolution had a profound impact on the developing world. The heroic sacrifices made by the Soviet Union to defeat the fascist forces laid the groundwork for a new world order after the Second World War. Colonial powers had to retreat after the socialist bloc came into existence. The people of the global South could look to Moscow for support in their struggle to get rid of their colonial chains and be masters of their own destiny.

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