Volume 5, No. 1, January 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The claim in the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that “…the Soviet Union was a model of the solution of the national question and the abolition of national oppression” (1) is open to question, given the manner in which the Soviet Union later broke up in 1991 amidst nationalist rebellions, civil wars, and breakaway movements in some former Soviet states. In order to understand why the Soviet Union’s ‘model’ policy on the National Question failed to inculcate in the relatively underdeveloped (e.g. Central Asia, Georgia, Chechnya, etc), and even some more developed states (e.g. Ukraine, Byelorussia, etc) the internationalist solidarity of the working class that the Bolshevik Party inscribed on its banner after the 1917 revolution, it is necessary to examine the question that whereas in theory the Soviet policy on the National Question was the most democratic and just, in practice it failed to be implemented in the true spirit of Lenin’s ideas on the problem.
The major role after the 1917 revolution on the National and Colonial Question internationally was played by the Third or Communist International (1919-43). While the Communist International succeeded in bringing the National Question to the forefront of Marxism, it bears examination what were its theoretical positions on this issue and the practical consequences flowing from these. It may also be of interest to see how these international policies may have impacted on the issue within the Soviet Union, in an ironic replay of Marx’s view that the National Question in the colonies could redound on the issue in Europe.
The fundamental issues in this examination are the role of what came to be known as the Third World and the revolutionary potential or lack of it of the national bourgeoisie in such countries. Despite being considered part of the Third World, Latin America displayed unique aspects rooted in its history of European settler colonialism and its impact on indigenous peoples. China too is an important case in mind of the contradictory (and after 1927 counter-revolutionary) role of the national bourgeoisie.
In Marx and Engels’ day in the 19th century, the National Question in Europe was considered distinct from colonialism. By the time Lenin rises on the revolutionary horizon in the early 20th century, this distinction was no longer considered valid and nationalism in the metropolitan and colonised countries was treated as inextricably linked. Since its founding in 1919, the Communist International emphasised the outpouring of independence and national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The First Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 was largely confined to Europe as the Bolsheviks sought support for their revolution threatened by civil war and imperialist intervention on the side of the counter-revolution. The dominant focus was on Germany, whose promising revolutionary candle was snuffed out in 1918-19. While the Comintern manifesto recognised the pressing nature of the colonial question, the liberation of the colonies was still seen as feasible only in conjunction with the revolutionary taking of power by the working class in the metropolitan countries. In other words, national liberation was still seen as a task subordinate to the international revolutionary movement centred on the developed world.
By the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, the first sustained theoretical debates on the National and Colonial Questions were on display, with the main protagonists being Lenin and M N Roy of India. Lenin desired to support only revolutionary nationalist movements, not bourgeois democratic ones. The debate on the latter category shone the spotlight on the character and role of the national bourgeoisie, which displayed contradictory traits of being both capitalist and ‘revolutionary’. These contradictory traits posed for the workers’ movements in the colonies the conundrum of how to unite with this class for the aim of national liberation while at the same time fighting against it for social liberation. Roy argued that there existed two distinct movements in the colonies, the bourgeois democratic national movement and the movement of workers and peasants for liberation from all forms of exploitation. The first, Roy went on, inevitably tries to control and subjugate the latter under its hegemony. Communists therefore may cooperate with the bourgeois nationalists for the overthrow of foreign (capitalist) colonialists but their foremost and critical task is the formation of communist parties to organise the workers and peasants. Lenin thought such weak communist parties at that stage had no other alternative than to support the nationalist movement. Roy on the other hand over optimistically regarded the existence of leadership in the hands of a communist vanguard as the guarantee the revolutionary masses would not be beguiled by the bourgeois nationalist movement and would discover the correct revolutionary road through their own experience. Not all ‘Third World’ delegates agreed with Roy’s excessive optimism about social revolutions in the colonies. The subsequent history of the independence and national liberation movements in the Third World has confirmed the critique that Roy’s theses were overly optimistic and far in advance of the actual revolutionary potential of the working masses’ movements in the colonies.
Although remnants of Eurocentrism still lingered peripherally in the international revolutionary movement, each setback and defeat in the European revolutions reinforced and brought to the centre of policy the potential of the colonies and semi-colonies. However, this shift was not without its own set of problems. Foremost amongst these was the National Question, which provoked a major confrontation at the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, 1920. The Congress was attended largely by the Muslims of Central Asia. The Comintern attempted to woo the revolutionary nationalists through a call to the struggle against imperialism while advising the movement of oppressed nationalities to abandon narrow nationalist prejudices in order to join the current of world revolution. However, the Comintern leaders were compelled to listen to the criticism from the eastern delegates, who had numerous complaints about their local, Bolshevik authorities’ policies that they argued were alienating the working masses of their areas from Soviet power. Further, they stressed the national nature of their revolution that could only proceed in accordance with their religious, human, social and economic conditions. Not all the Comintern leaders showed a proper understanding of such national peculiarities stemming from the stage of development of those societies. They still basically adhered to their view that the national revolutions were at best a secondary complement to the proletarian revolution in the metropolitan countries.
In the early 1920s, while orthodox Marxist views on the National Question by and large prevailed in the leadership of the Comintern, the need for survival of the Soviet state started to impinge on, and even weaken if not negate, the revolutionary policy of support to national liberation and independence movements in the colonies and semi-colonies. One such instance was the treaty of friendship with Kemalist Turkey in 1921 to provide Soviet military and financial aid. Notwithstanding the impending signing of the treaty, the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk nationalist government arrested the Turkish communist leadership, executed 15 of them, and launched fierce repression against the peasant movement for land and agrarian reform. Another the same year was the trade agreement with Britain, which included a clause pledging the Soviets to abstain from any propaganda that could incite the peoples of Asia to act against British interests. Necessary compromises of this nature showed the interests of the Soviet state taking understandable precedence over the world revolution, especially when the promising upsurge in the latter in the wake of World War I faded and the survival of the Soviet Union became the critical question.
By the 1928 Congress of the Comintern, a distinction began to be drawn between the section of the national bourgeoisie that directly served the interests of imperialism (comprador) and the vacillating national reformist sector that supported the national movement. The Comintern held that communist parties must not enter into any kind of bloc with the national reformist bourgeoisie but this did not preclude tactical anti-imperialist alliances. Similar tactical alliances with petty bourgeois national revolutionary movements could be contemplated.
By 1935, with the rise of fascism, the Comintern plumped for the Popular Front strategy. This implied the tactical subservience of the anti-imperialist struggle in favour of a broad anti-fascist front. When World War II broke out in 1939, communist parties, including the Indian party, supported the anti-fascist war effort, which resulted in, for example, a break between the Indian national bourgeoisie and the communists, and Latin American communists allying with US imperialism against the Axis powers. This state of affairs, particularly after Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, almost inevitably sounded the death knell of the Comintern in 1943.
(To be continued)