History of the Comintern: Colonised peoples take the lead

November 30, 2007

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. In the years following the revolution, its leaders initiated the formation of the Communist (Third) International (Comintern), an international grouping of communist parties. In Venezuela, the leadership of the country's unfolding socialist revolution have issued a call for a new international of Latin American left parties. In this article, part of a series on the early years of the Comintern, John Riddell looks at the relationship between communist revolutionaries and colonised peoples.

The prominent role of revolutionists from Asia in the Communist International (Comintern) marked a breakthrough for the world socialist movement.

At the International's Second Congress in 1920, 11 countries from Asia were represented. A delegate from India, M.N. Roy, later wrote that "for the first time, brown and yellow men met with white men who were no overbearing imperialists but friends and comrades".

The pre-1914 Socialist (Second) International had largely failed to embrace struggles by colonial peoples. The Comintern's founders, by contrast, hailed the new, leading role of oppressed peoples.

In his 1913 article, "Backward Europe and Advanced Asia", V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the Russian Revolution, wrote that in Asia, "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."

When World War I ended, freedom struggles broke out across Asia, impelled by the victors' denial of colonial self-determination.

Oppressed and oppressor

Addressing the Second Congress, Lenin noted that 70% of the world's population "are either in a state of direct colonial dependence or are semi-colonies". The "cardinal idea" underlying the Second Congress theses on the national and colonial questions, he said, was "the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations".

According to these theses, the Comintern's goal lay in "uniting the proletarians and toiling masses of all nations" in a common struggle "to overthrow the landowners and the bourgeoisie". But to achieve that goal, "all communist parties must directly support the revolutionary movement among the nations that are dependent … and in the colonies".

Introducing the theses, Lenin insisted on the need to distinguish reformist currents that accept the colonial framework and "national-revolutionary movements", even though the program of the latter was "bourgeois-democratic" rather than socialist.

The theses called for support to peasant movements in dependent countries "against the landowners and all forms and vestiges of feudalism", and the organising of the peasants into soviets (revolutionary councils).

Yet communist forces could not dissolve into the national-revolutionary movement, the theses cautioned. They "absolutely must maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, even in its embryonic stage", in order to defend workers' historic interests.

The Comintern's defense of colonial peoples extended to Asian immigrants in the US, Canada, and Australia, who faced discrimination and exclusion not only by governments but also by some trade unions. The International called for "a vigorous campaign against restrictive immigration laws", equal wages for non-white workers and their organisation into the unions.

Uneven understanding

The Dutch communist Henk Sneevliet, representing what is now Indonesia, told delegates that "no question on the entire agenda has such great importance" as the national and colonial questions. Lenin delivered the main report on this question, and drafted the theses.

Some delegates did not share this view. Giacinto Serrati, leader of the Italian Socialist Party, deplored the 10 minutes that had been spent discussing Black oppression in the US.

His compatriot Antonio Graziadei moved an amendment to weaken "support" of liberation movements down to merely "take an active interest in" them.

Two years later, the Comintern's Fourth Congress chastised the French party because its Algiers section advanced "a purely slaveholder's point of view" with respect to the Algerian struggle for self-determination.

But most communist leaders in advanced countries rallied in support of colonial liberation struggles. Among them was US communist John Reed, who told Asian delegates assembled in 1920 in Baku, in petroleum-rich Azerbaijan: "Do you know how 'Baku' is pronounced in American? It is pronounced 'oil'! And American capitalism is striving to establish a world monopoly of oil … The American bankers and the American capitalists attempt everywhere to conquer the places and enslave the peoples where oil is found … The East will help us overthrow capitalism in Western Europe and America."

The acid test of Comintern policy was the conduct of its Russian component, the Bolshevik party, toward the subject peoples that accounted for half the former Russian empire's population. When workers and peasants took power in 1917, one of the soviet government's first actions was to proclaim the right of all subject peoples within the former Russian empire to "free self-determination up to and including the right to secede".

Peoples who opted to remain in Soviet Russia were offered autonomy within the soviet federation, including authority over language, education and culture. An early soviet appeal pledged to Muslim workers and farmers (a majority in vast reaches of Russia's Asian territories) that "henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable". The appeal urged them to "build your national life freely and without hindrance".

Substantial resources were allocated to enable peoples still at the dawn of national consciousness to develop their language, culture and educational system. Their religious customs and traditions were recognised, as was their right to land recently seized by Russian colonists, while their nationals received preference in administrative appointments.

These policies inspired thousands of nationalist revolutionaries from the oppressed peoples to join the Bolshevik party and help shape and implement its nationalities policy.

Baku congress

This process of revolutionary fusion was extended across much of Asia by the Congress of Peoples of the East organised by the Comintern in Baku in 1920.

The 1900 congress delegates called for "a holy war for the liberation of the peoples of the East … To end the division of countries into advanced and backward, dependent and independent, metropolitan and colonial!" The magazine established by the congress was published under the title "Workers of all countries and all oppressed peoples, unite!"

Communist parties were formed that year in Turkey, Egypt, Iran, India (in exile), Korea and Indonesia, and the following year in China. East Asian revolutionists met in a separate congress in 1922. That same year, a massive rise of workers' struggles in China confirmed that the peoples of the east, as Lenin had declared nine years earlier, were taking their place in the vanguard of the world's freedom struggles.

[Quotations from Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! and To See the Dawn (Pathfinder Press, edited by John Riddell). John Riddell is co-editor of Canada's Socialist Voice ().]

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