Stalin in the 1920s: commissar of nationalities

Communists and holy war

While the past should not and cannot be mapped onto the present, Jack Conrad argues that the approach taken by Comintern to the Muslim east contains many useful lessons - if, that is, we retain our critical faculties

Within the tsarist empire Muslims constituted something around 10% of the population. They were oppressed as a religion and as a people - it is important to recognise that to be a Muslim was as much about ethnic identity as it was faith. Because these people were concentrated in the east, in central Asia and the Caucasus, what the Bolsheviks were dealing with was not only a ‘minority’ religious question, but a national and colonial question.

After the February revolution the Bolsheviks bullishly promoted the slogan of national self-determination. Suffice to say, once they took power and established their government in Petrograd, that slogan increasingly went hand in hand with class war and the goal of social transformation in the east. As a result there was an influx of Muslims into the Communist Party. It is estimated that in Turkestan and other such areas those party members adhering to Islam numbered around 15% (although some give much higher figures).

Existing, often self-proclaimed national leaders recoiled. Many sought salvation with the well-funded and growing forces of counterrevolution. Not that white generals exhibited the slightest sympathy for them or their ambitions. This, and the fortunes of war, produced a highly unstable situation. Nationalists were alternately hammer and anvil and took one side after the other in the civil war. They bounced from the reds to the whites and vice versa.

Discontent manifested itself amongst Muslims even before the February revolution. Fermented by a thin stratum of intellectuals, there were incipient national movements against tsarism, which went hand in hand with the takeover of traditional grazing land by incoming Russian settler-colonists. The collapse of tsarism propelled the Muslim peoples onto the stage of history.

In May 1917 the first all-Russia congress of Muslims was held in Petrograd. It demanded not independence, but autonomy. The main bone of contention was between those who wanted it on a national-territorial basis and those who would have settled for cultural autonomy within a unitary Russian state. A second congress of Muslims followed in July 1917. It took place in Kazan and was mainly controlled by Tatars, who “played with pan-Tatian aspirations”.1 A Bashkir congress took place at the same time. It issued a programme demanding that Russia become “a democratic, federal republic”, with Kazakhstan as an autonomous national unit.

Throughout the summer of 1917 there were other such gatherings and similar demands. EH Carr stresses that none of them should be regarded as “revolutionary in the social sense”.2 Delegates at the Bashkir congress were, for example, mainly composed of mullahs, elders and kulaks. An entry fee of 50 roubles was charged. So it would be mistaken, at this stage, to present the Muslim movement as a break with traditional social and power structures.

After the October revolution the Soviet government carefully and attentively addressed the national movement. A special appeal was issued: ‘To all Muslim toilers of Russia and the east’. It declared that “henceforth” your beliefs and usages, national and cultural customs are “free and inviolable”. They should organise their national life in “complete freedom”. Moreover, the Soviet government promised to protect those rights. In return it called for Muslims to lend their support “to this revolution and to its government”.3 Other Muslims, beyond the borders of the old tsarist empire, were also promised aid.

Another decree established a commissariat for internal Muslim affairs. It was headed by a Tartar and a Bashkir. Also in 1918, a congress of Muslim communists was held in Moscow. It set up a central bureau of Muslim communist organisations, which issued propaganda in many languages, including a daily paper in Turkish. Its second congress, in November 1919, was addressed by both Lenin and Stalin. Incidentally, and not unrelatedly, during the civil war tens of thousands of Muslims fought with the Red Army, sometimes in special Muslim regiments and units.

Strategy and tactics

Not that the Soviet leadership was stuck on an unbending, one-gauge line. There was an agreed strategy, but necessarily that entailed constant shifts in tactical emphasis and changes of direction. Inevitably, sometimes those shifts were right, sometimes they were wrong. In early 1918 there was a wrong - a badly mistimed - shift in regard to nationalists, Islam included.

As commissar of nationalities - hence, one supposes, acting on behalf of the Communist Party’s politburo - Stalin determined to destroy the influence of the mullahs, who had till then been the backbone of the ‘bourgeois nationalist movement’ in the east. Apparently there was strong opposition to his change of emphasis from other leading communists in the field. They wanted to maintain the successful ‘softly, softly’ approach. But Stalin got his way. As things turned out, however, those who thought they could downplay or simply bypass national sentiments and aspirations with what were essentially hollow class appeals proved woefully mistaken. Stalin’s attempt to win the masses in the east away from nationalism and Islam resulted in a “fiasco”.4 Whites, nationalists and pan-Islamists crushed those pockets of Soviet power that existed in the east.

By the end of 1919 the party’s top personalities appear to have concluded that there had to be an urgent reorientation. The military situation was awful and they had dangerously underestimated the durability of Islam and the fact that mullahs and imams were deeply embedded socially, acting as they did as judges, law-givers, teachers and intellectuals, as well as political leaders.

Mutually beneficial arrangements were therefore sought with the more open-minded members of the Islamic clergy. There were those - albeit a minority, the so-called ‘red mullahs’ - who were prepared to tolerate secular schools and women being given legal equality. Anticipating the helping hand given by the Soviet government to the ‘bourgeois’ Living Church breakaway from the ‘feudal’ Russian Orthodox church headed by Patriarch Tikhon, there would be a favouring of the ‘red mullahs’ over the overt reactionaries. Instead of direct, head-to-head confrontation, that way the power of Islam could, perhaps, be harnessed. Moreover, by extending this domestic course to the international level, a blow could be struck at the soft underbelly of imperialism by assisting national struggles in the east - crucially against the British empire. In a word, the strategy of the anti-imperialist united front.

Addressing the 2nd all-Russia Congress of Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East in November 1919, Lenin spelt out the reasoning behind his strategy: “the socialist revolution will not be solely, or chiefly, a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against its bourgeoisie - no, it will be a struggle of all imperialist-oppressed countries, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism”.5

Undoubtedly such a formulation could be innocently, or cynically, used to play down the importance of revolution in the capitalistically advanced countries in order to give prime place to national or peasant struggles in the so-called ‘third world’ - Maoism does that with a vengeance. Yet, as shown by history - and predicted by Marxist theory - whatever their socialistic and communistic pretensions, national liberation movements are strictly limited in what they can achieve in and of themselves, and often end in cruel anticlimax and sometimes even in horrendous social regression.

The fact of the matter is that the imperialist centres - today the US, the EU, Japan, etc - constitute the commanding heights of the world economy and this, the world economy, is where the communist mode of production begins. It would, of course, be pure stupidity to in any way detract from the vanguard role of revolutions in those countries where the vast bulk of the human race actually live - China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Korea, Turkey, Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil, etc. These countries smoulder with discontent, can burst into flame at any moment and now have large, often very militant, working class movements. Yet there can be no denying that without revolution in the core capitalist countries - which doubtless could be (surely will be) triggered by revolutions in backward and medium-developed countries - we shall continue to see the mere exchange of direct for indirect imperialist domination, the ousting of old corrupt elites by new corrupt elites; that or ectopic social formations and insane parodies of socialism.

Hence the real significance of the national liberation slogan - ie, the demand for self-determination - lies not only in opening up a second front against imperialism on the international chessboard, but with the working class, crucially in the core capitalist countries. By taking up the slogan against their own bourgeoisie as a basic democratic demand, the working class readies itself to become a ruling class. Demanding the right of self-determination for countries oppressed by the ruling class is essential in establishing working class political independence. Inevitably, in the “imperialist-oppressed countries” themselves, by raising the exact same slogan against the external oppressor, there comes an opposite possibility - instead of working class political independence, subservience to petty bourgeois or bourgeois nationalism.

The 2nd Congress of the Communist International correctly highlighted the importance of the national liberation movements for the post-World War I period and rightly stressed the necessity of working class political independence. However, Lenin’s draft, and the final resolutions themselves, are not without their pitfalls for the unwary. Properly understanding Lenin’s real, intended meaning encapsulated in his Marxist terminology - that and a keen sense of history - are vital. After all, Lenin’s ‘Theses on the national and colonial question’, drafted in July 1920, is now often treated as gospel by Maoists, Stalinites and SWPers alike.

Two sets of theses

On this subject of the national struggle in the colonies, Comintern had another set of theses before it. Besides Lenin’s, the other was drafted by the Indian communist, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954). Both were sent to a drafting commission, whose members, let alone the original authors, could hardly have imagined in their worst nightmares how the future would misuse their work. Anyway, while between the two sets of theses there was much in common, there were three areas of disagreement - two “minor”; the other, according to Carr, “major”.6

Roy described the economic conditions in the east as “pre-capitalist”. The commission preferred “dominated by capitalist imperialism” - this amendment was readily accepted. Roy also maintained that, while the colonial empires lasted and the metropolitan countries could bribe their workers with the spoils of imperialism, revolution would be impossible. The commission seems to have thought, rightly, that this gave too much prominence to the colonies. Once again there was an agreed amendment to bring Roy into line with Lenin. The third area of disagreement was certainly harder to bridge.

Lenin’s starting point was the need for an “alliance of the proletarians and the toiling masses of all nations and countries in a simultaneous revolutionary struggle against the landowners and the bourgeoisie”. In Lenin’s theoretical language he meant the overthrow of capitalism in the advanced countries and feudalism in the backward ones - a grand strategy given a new, third element by the October 1917 revolution. The colonial peoples were urged to closely align themselves to the growing power of the Soviet republic.

Communists in the colonial and oppressed countries must assist the “bourgeois-democratic national liberation movements”. But what Lenin had in mind was not a bourgeois-led revolution - that class fearfully shunned all revolutionary methods. Rather Lenin defined objective limits: ie, the revolution could not immediately transcend capitalism. Lenin’s “bourgeois-democratic” revolution relied on unleashing a peasant Niagara against landlordism, colonialism and all manifestations or relics of so-called feudalism. To all intents and purposes, a concrete application, or development, of the Bolshevik strategy of the revolutionary dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat and peasantry, under conditions where soviet (Bolshevik) power was already established in the Russian redoubt. Hence, depending on the balance of class forces - and presumably a successful revolution in Europe - there could be the dominant rule of the working class in such countries, if there was a strong, well established alliance with the peasantry. An idea mapped out by Lenin in his masterful 1905 pamphlet Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution.

Naturally, for Lenin, any organisational or ideological subservience to either the peasants or the ‘revolutionary’ bourgeoisie was to be fought against:

The Communist International must march in temporary alliance with the bourgeois democracy of the colonies and backward countries, but must not merge with it and must preserve absolutely the independence of the communist movement even in its most embryonic form.

Equally, there should be a “determined struggle” against attempts to give bourgeois-democratic liberation movements “a communist colouring”. Lenin’s draft theses also insisted on the need to combat the “reactionary and medieval elements”, along with “pan-Islamism and similar trends”, which strive to combine the liberation movement against imperialism with the “attempt to strengthen the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc”.7

Roy had another, slightly different perspective. He distinguished between bourgeois-democratic movements in the colonies - by which he appears to mean bourgeois-led movements - and the “struggle of landless peasants against every form of exploitation”, which required “the creation of communist organisations of workers and peasants”. Comintern, he said, must resist the temptation of subordinating the second movement to the first. Nevertheless, the revolutions in the colonial countries will not in the first instance be “a communist revolution”.8 Hence Comintern policy should be based on land redistribution to the peasants. Essentially the agrarian programme of the old Socialist Revolutionary Party taken up by the Bolsheviks in 1917.

Roy’s theses were agreed as a supplement by Comintern, but were destined to gather dust and all but be forgotten. Nevertheless, the germ of his theses would later be cancerously developed by Stalin and Bukharin and turned into the rigid, two-stage, anti-imperialist revolution in which the revolution against colonialism and the socialist revolution are separated by a whole historic epoch and embody entirely different and opposed social contents. Essentially a repeat of the programme of the Mensheviks.

To all intents and purposes the same fate lay in store for Lenin’s theses. They emerged from the commission with a number of amendments, not least the problematic formulation of the “bourgeois-democratic revolution” being replaced by “national revolutionary movement”. For the untrained eye this alteration made Lenin’s theses appear harder. Nonetheless, they could be read selectively and with opportunist intent. It was possible to equate the duty to make common cause with the “national revolutionary” peasant movement against imperialism and their native landlord and bourgeois allies with pushing, or making way for, the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution. In other words banking on the patriotic, or national, bourgeoisie taking single-minded revolutionary action against imperialism’s agents or the colonial authorities. This labour of Sisyphus was, of course, exactly what Stalin imposed upon Comintern in the 1920s, not least in China. The results were bloody and historically calamitous.

There was also the looming problem of a clash of interests between the Soviet state and those of local communist parties. What happened when the “bourgeois-democratic” or “national revolutionary movement”, or even government, violently turned against the communists? What happened when the nationalists simultaneously fought on two fronts - against imperialism, against the working class and the communists? Was the Soviet state and the international communist movement still obliged to offer unstinting aid? Should the Soviet state pursue its own immediate needs - ie, win allies against imperialism by offering military-diplomatic assistance - when that support strengthened the hand of those bludgeoning the local communists? Such knotty problems were to all intents and purposes left unexplored. That despite the counterrevolutionary anti-imperialism of Enver Pasha and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey (many others were to follow).


It would, of course, be grossly unfair - that or simply dumb - to blame either Lenin or Roy for what followed. Locating some kind of original sin that supposedly exists with the term “national revolutionary”, as opposed to “bourgeois democratic”, and to directly ascribe to one or the other phrase “disastrous effects on contemporary politics” is to betray, or more likely to misunderstand, the Leninist programme.9 Those inclined towards such unwarranted conclusions reveal a fundamental inability, or unwillingness, to learn the subtleties of communist politics.

As Carr comments, “The decisions of the 2nd Congress of Comintern in [sic] the national question, like most of its decisions, were taken in the unquestioning faith in the immanence of a proletarian revolution which would sweep the world.” Perceptively the same historian says:

Once this faith was disappointed, the decisions themselves, applied in conditions utterly different from those for which they had been designed, not only falsified the intentions of their authors, but were used to justify a series of compromises and retreats which, in the hour of faith and enthusiasm, would have been brushed aside as inconceivable.10

Eg, the left nationalism that views national sovereignty or national independence as a goal to be proclaimed alongside, and as virtually synonymous with, socialism. Such a travesty was completely alien for both Lenin and Comintern. The principle they advocated was not national independence: rather self-determination - a vital distinction that only hardened nationalists or the woefully uneducated could possibly confuse. Lenin favoured the voluntary union of peoples into big states, the biggest feasible, not the further Balkanisation of the world. Nevertheless, many ‘Marxists’ today - for example, the leadership of the rump Scottish Socialist Party - insist upon independence as a prerequisite for socialism and thereby completely subordinate the programme of the international working class to the politics of petty bourgeois nationalism. In truth, of course, SSP leaders merely pay lip service to Marxism. Neither the SSP nor its various fragments can be properly regarded as socialist organisations.

Lenin highlighted, by way of what Carr calls an “exception”, the possibility of the east undergoing a permanent or uninterrupted revolution.11 Lenin actually writes of overcoming “tremendous difficulties” and bypassing the “capitalist stage” of development.12 A strategy first sketched out by Marx, not Trotsky, as the latter’s epigones crassly maintain. With the aid of the victorious revolutionary proletariat these countries could make the transition to the soviet order, and hence through “defined stages of development” to communism, avoiding capitalism altogether.

The same theoretically and historically informed approach is needed when discussing the first (and only) congress of peoples of the east, held in Baku in September 1920. Gregory Zinoviev’s opening speech is much criticised, both by left social democrats at the time and by latter-day left dogmatists. He was supposedly going soft on religion, giving it, specifically Islam, socialist features it does not possess. In reality Zinoviev did no such thing. He simply adapted and gave a new content to traditional language13:

Comrades! Brothers! The time has come when you can start on the organisation of a true and holy people’s war against the robbers and oppressors. The Communist International turns today to the peoples of the east and says to them: ‘Brothers, we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against English imperialism!’ (Tumultuous applause, prolonged ‘Hurrah’. Members of the congress rise from their seats and brandish their weapons. The speaker is unable to continue for some time. All the delegates stand up and applaud. Shouts of ‘We swear it’).14

Zinoviev was quite definite: the peoples of the east must pursue not only the national liberation struggle against imperialism, but the class war too. His sights were on a string of soviet republics in the east federated with Russia. He therefore began his speech by asking a fitting rhetorical question: “Are you a man who lives by his labour? Do you belong to the working masses? Do you want to put a stop to the strife between peoples? Do you want to organise a struggle against the oppressors?”15 If the answer was ‘yes’, without forgetting or papering over differences, then an alliance between revolutionary nationalists and communists could be cemented.

Indeed, given the historical moment, it was necessary, pressing and on balance immediately beneficial for both sides.

  1. D Peris Storming the heavens: the soviet league of the militant godless Ithaca NY 1998, p322.↩︎

  2. Ibid p323.↩︎

  3. Quoted in ibid.↩︎

  4. Ibid p326.↩︎

  5. VI Lenin CW Vol 30, Moscow 1977, p159.↩︎

  6. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1975, p254.↩︎

  7. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p149.↩︎

  8. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1975, p256.↩︎

  9. G Byrne, ‘Bolshevism and Islam’ Solidarity March 18 2004.↩︎

  10. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1975, p260-61.↩︎

  11. Ibid p257.↩︎

  12. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p244.↩︎

  13. Radicals in England did the same with the Bible. William Blake wrote of “building Jerusalem” in place of the “dark satanic mills”. Ditto, socialists and their working class crusades, communist catechisms and promises to build heaven on earth.↩︎

  14. B Pearce (trans) Congress of the peoples of the east London 1977, pp36-37.↩︎

  15. Ibid pp24-25.↩︎