Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The ignominious collapse and dissolution of the Communist International (CI) or Comintern in 1943 was presaged by the struggle to preserve the Soviet Union (SU) against imperialist aggression and the ‘surrender’ perforce to the idea of Socialism in One Country after the European revolutions failed in the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917. The National Question in the SU was tackled by the most democratic multi-national state structure the world had ever seen. No nation, nationality or even minority, no matter how small, was left out of the formation of Soviet Socialist Republics, Autonomous Regions, local autonomous areas (even within the first two), etc. The non-Russian peoples were allowed, encouraged, and facilitated in developing their own languages, cultures, etc. Education was imparted (at least at the school level) in native languages as the medium of instruction. Despite Russia being the dominant nation under the Tsarist Empire, all nations, nationalities and minorities were declared equal. The less developed parts of the SU, particularly Central Asia, the Caucasus, and even relatively developed component parts such as Ukraine, Byelorussia, etc, were facilitated to embark on rapid economic development to catch up with relatively advanced Russia. Although the Soviet Constitution laid down the right of national self-determination, including secession, given this unprecedented conferring of national rights, autonomy and economic progress, there were no movements to leave the SU by any of its component parts.
However, this sanguine picture was subsequently disturbed (at least under the surface) by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) led by Stalin since 1924 forgetting the strictures of Lenin on handling the National Question in a Soviet Union that had inherited from the Tsarist Empire a country infamously dubbed ‘a prison of nations’, with extreme sensitivity. Motivated by a siege mentality justified by the rise of fascism and the threat of an existential war against Hitler’s Germany, the desire for a strong, centralised state able to meet the challenge seemed to override everything else, including Lenin’s teachings on how to handle the National Question in the SU. Of course after the collapse of the SU in 1991 and soon after, all this nationalist lava accumulated and bubbling just below the surface burst forth, rendering the so-called Commonwealth of Independent States infructuous and leading to 15 independent states emerging. Thus did one of the finest and most advanced socialist experiments in handling the National Question end in disaster.
Even before the CI was dissolved in 1943, contradictions had arisen between the correct revolutionary path in the colonial and semi-colonial countries as perceived and dictated by the CI and as practiced in some of those countries. The most spectacular example is the Chinese revolution. China at the time of Dr Sun Yat Sen’s Republican Revolution of 1911 was semi-colonial, semi-feudal. No communist party existed until one was set up in 1921. The CI seemed so enamoured of Dr Sun Yat Sen’s Kuomintang Party that it insisted the newly set up Communist Party of China (CPC) forge an alliance with the Kuomintang against imperialism and feudalism. Although this alliance helped the CPC grow while Dr Sun Yat Sen was alive, within two years of his death in 1925, his successor Chiang Kai Shek turned on the CPC and launched the 1927 Shanghai Massacre. With the honourable exception of the peasant guerrilla war in Hunan province led by Mao Tse Tung, the CPC was based primarily in the cities, in what has dogged the post-Russian Revolution Marxist Left throughout its history, i.e. the blind adherence to successful revolutionary ‘models’, in this case the Russian Revolution based largely on the working class despite an alliance with the peasantry, from which the bulk of the Tsarist military was recruited and proved decisive in the October 1917 seizure of power. Now after the 1927 massacre, the CPC leadership had no option but to retreat to the bases in the countryside, foremost amongst them the Hunan peasant guerrilla war. Mao’s ideas on guerrilla warfare were at first not accepted by the CPC leadership, leading to military defeat and the necessity to shift northwards through the historic Long March in 1934-35. The other motivation for embarking on the incredibly difficult Long March of course was the need to mount a national resistance against creeping Japanese military invasion and piecemeal conquest of Chinese territory, which started in 1931. The Long March was a major turning point in the CPC’s history, since Mao’s ascendance to party leader stems from it.
Chiang Kai Shek’s anti-communist predilections also deflected him from Dr Sun Yat Sen’s anti-feudal programme. He gave up the Kuomintang’s anti-feudal campaigns to concentrate all his might on crushing the communists. In this fanatical venture, he even forewent the need to resist Japanese encroachment and conquest. A group of his own Generals revolted against this policy, held Chiang prisoner in the famous Xian incident, and forced him to forge a national alliance with the CPC against Japanese imperialism. The uneasy Kuomintang-CPC alliance persisted till the Japanese defeat and surrender at the end of WWII in 1945. Then the civil war was reignited by Chiang, but by now the CPC had built up its strength during the anti-Japanese resistance and defeated the Kuomintang, which was forced to flee to Taiwan.
These events took place against the advice of the CI, whose insistence on retaining the alliance with the Kuomintang continued even after this party had gone over to the counter-revolution from 1927 onwards. They also confirmed that no universal model of revolution existed or could be successful. Each revolutionary struggle had to find its own correct path through a concrete analysis of its own concrete circumstances. China’s huge peasant revolution under the leadership of proletarian ideology represented by the CPC, in a departure from the Soviet revolutionary ‘model’, ironically itself assumed incrementally the status of a new universal revolutionary ‘model’ for the anti-colonial national liberation movements of the Third World. However, despite the surface resemblance of such armed guerrilla movements with the Chinese revolutionary struggle, each showed its own characteristics and differences from the Chinese example.
The problems for national liberation movements post-WWII in the climate of the collapse and dissolution of European empires were diverse. In the case of independence movements led by the bourgeoisie, e.g. India, the weak communist parties, despite protestations of maintaining their separate identity, either followed behind the bourgeois-led independence movements or at least could not deflect them along a revolutionary road. They were even unable to swim against the tide of religious communalism that drowned the Indian Subcontinent in rivers of fratricidal blood during Partition in 1947. Latin America had thrown off the Spanish and Portuguese colonial yoke during the 19th century, owed largely to the exertions of Simon Bolivar. Africa, with the exception of the French and Portuguese colonies, had largely received its independence from the retreating and by now unsustainable British Empire. The former two empires fought to retain their colonies, the French in Algeria and Indo-China, the Portuguese in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. All were sooner or later defeated. Settler colonial states such as Zimbabwe, after years of guerrilla struggle, finally won through political negotiations, as did South Africa. The Dutch were eventually forced out of Indonesia.
The world changed beyond recognition. But hidden under this transformation was the question whether the dismantling of colonialism and formal independence would be enough to permit the newly freed countries to chart out an independent economic and political development path. Here the perceptive critiques of Third World revolutionary leaders raised the question whether independence would be real or a sham disguising their countries’ almost inevitable falling into the neo-colonial grip of imperialist global capitalism. History has shown the correctness of their analysis. Even revolutionary national liberation movements have suffered the common fate of being currently trapped in the net of global capitalism and its evolved structures such as global supply chains.
These harsh truths have unbundled the revolutionary Third World wave that overtook the world in the 1960s under the influence of events such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. Today, Third World revolutionary rhetoric finds few if any takers. With the collapse of the SU in 1991 and China embracing the capitalist development path in 1978, the world as a whole, developed and developing, awaits clarity on the way forward.
The most important lesson to be learnt from explaining the complexities, inherent and in the Marxist discourse, of the National Question, is the progressive and regressive sides of the nationalist coin, Marxist revolutionaries’ inadequate understanding of the complexities surrounding the question, and their inability in practice to handle it in a way that helps proletarian internationalist solidarity, not the alienation of working people from each other on the basis of hateful ‘othering’.
(To be continued)