By Mike Taber
October 22, 2021—The end of the 20-year-long U.S. war in Afghanistan in August, and the takeover of the country by the Taliban, highlighted once again the worldwide political significance of the countries of the Islamic East. Are peoples in these countries condemned to permanent backwardness, as many believe, weighed down by reactionary religious ideology? Or can they be a revolutionary force in the fight to liberate humanity? What will it take to cement an alliance between working people of East and West?
These questions were posed in practice a century ago following the victory of the October 1917 revolution in Russia.
During its early years, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin implemented policies aimed at liberating the toilers of the East from the oppression of the old Russian tsarist regime. The new workers’ and peasants’ government set out to transform social relations in these areas, to advance literacy and culture, and to help the downtrodden masses become conscious actors making their own history. The Communist International (Comintern) extended that perspective internationally. The Comintern’s goal was to create, for the first time, a genuinely worldwide revolutionary movement that would embrace toilers of East and West as fellow fighters.
Prior to 1917, the Russian Empire was a prison house of nations. Finns, Poles, Ukrainians, Armenians, peoples in the Crimea, the Caucasus, and central and northeast Asia, among others. All told, the oppressed peoples constituted the majority of the empire’s population. Most of these peoples were denied national rights and recognition. Native languages were generally barred from schools and public administration offices. Moreover, many native populations were subject to settler-based colonization, which took away land from the local peoples and made them second-class citizens in their own territories.
Well before 1917, the question of the revolutionary potential of the East, and the need for an alliance with the toilers of these countries, had been a preoccupation of Lenin. His 1913 article “Backward Europe, Advanced Asia” reflected his thinking on these issues.
“Everywhere in Asia a mighty democratic movement is growing, spreading, and gaining in strength,” Lenin wrote. “Hundreds of millions of people are awakening to life, light and freedom.” He wrote that “the hundreds of millions of Asian working people [have] a reliable ally in the proletariat of all civilized countries. No force on earth can prevent its victory, which will liberate both the peoples of Europe and the peoples of Asia.”
The article below by John Riddell is a short introduction to the work of the Bolsheviks within Russia and the measures they took, as well as the work of the early Communist International, on this question. In particular, it emphasizes the importance of the 1920 Congress of the Peoples of the East held in Baku, Azerbaijan. The gathering brought together over 2,000 delegates representing workers and peasants of more than two dozen peoples of Asia. To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920—First Congress of the Peoples of the East, contains the record of that congress.
Additionally, the Comintern organized a Congress of the Toilers of the Far East in 1922, attended by fighters for national and proletarian liberation in China, Japan, Mongolia, and Korea. The proceedings of that congress were recently published in Alliance of Adversaries: The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East.
Riddell’s article also points to how the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian revolution reversed the policies of the Bolsheviks toward the peoples of the East. By the end of the 1920s, a bureaucratic caste had taken power in the Soviet Union. It was animated by a spirit of Russian chauvinism and hostility to the demands of oppressed nations and nationalities. In fact, Lenin had warned of the signs of this very danger in his final writings to the leadership of the Communist Party. Following his death in 1924, these erroneous policies deepened, and under Stalin the Soviet Union eventually became what the tsarist regime had been: a prison house of nations. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many of these nations seized on the 1917-era commitment to self-determination to declare their independence.
In 1979 this approach belittling national rights and sentiment led to the USSR’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan and its subsequent decade-long occupation of that sovereign country. The Soviet military intervention led to stiff resistance—encouraged and financed by Washington—which eventually spawned the Taliban and al-Queda.
Below is the second half of the article “National Freedom and the Russian Revolution” published November 1, 2006, on the website “John Riddell: Marxist Essays and Commentary” (johnriddell.com). The original can be found here.
World-Outlook is republishing it by permission.
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National Freedom & the Russian Revolution: The Soviets Take Power
By John Riddell
On November 15, 1917, one week after the workers and soldiers of Russia took power, the Soviet government decreed the “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia” and the right of these peoples to self-determination up to and including independence. Subsequently, five nations on the western border, including Poland and Finland, asserted their independence, which the Soviet government recognized. Others opted to federate with the Russian Soviet republic.
But the matter did not stop there. The Soviet government invited each nation within Russia to hold a soviet congress to decide whether and on what basis to participate in its federal structure. National minorities were offered not only the ultimate right to separate but autonomous powers over language, education, and culture that gave expression to the right of self-determination. The government spelled out this policy in April 1918 with reference to Russia’s Eastern peoples in an article by Stalin, then its commissar of nationalities. These regions, he stated, must be “autonomous, that is have their own schools, courts, administrations, organs of power and social, political and cultural institutions,” with full rights to use the minority language “in all spheres of social and political activity.” (Smith, p. 24.)
This policy applied also to religious customs and traditions. Thus the Sharia—the Muslim common law—was recognized in traditionally Muslim territories as an integral part of the Soviet legal structure.
The Soviet government also endorsed the rights of the Muslim peoples to lands recently seized by Russian colonists, including when these lands had been utilized only seasonally by Muslim peasant nomads. It supported local initiatives to repossess such land in the North Caucasus and endorsed resettlement of Russian colonists in Turkestan as a means of restoring land seized by settlers after the defeat of an uprising of subject peoples in 1916.
It also worked to educate government personnel as to the social structure of the Eastern peoples. An appeal to Red Army personnel in 1920 urged that soldiers see the small independent producers and traders of these regions as allies, as toilers, not as profiteers. It noted that among these peoples, “a clear class differentiation has not yet taken place…. The producers have not yet been torn away from the means of production. Each handicraftsman … is also a merchant. Commerce … rests in the hands of millions of small traders, [each of whom] only has a penny’s worth of goods.” Given all this, “the rapid implementation of communism … nationalization of all trade … of handicraftsmen … is impossible.” This analysis is strikingly applicable to the conditions of the indigenous masses today in Bolivia and other Latin American countries.
Promotion of national culture
With regard to the Eastern peoples, Soviet policy went far beyond support of land claims and autonomous governmental structures. The Soviet government supported the evolution into mature nationalities of peoples still only at the dawn of national consciousness. In this way, these peoples would be able to reach a cultural and political level that would facilitate their integration into Soviet society on a basis of equality.
The soviets, therefore, embarked on an ambitious program to promote national cultural development. Local experts were engaged to choose, for each ethnic group, the dialect best adapted to serving as the basis for a national language. Alphabets were devised for the mostly pre-literate peoples. Dictionaries and grammars were written and put to use in the publication of minority-language newspapers.
Education was started up in the minority languages, including within the Russian-speaking heartlands—in every locality where there were 25 students in the minority language group. By 1927, across the Soviet Union, more than 90% of students from minority nationalities were being educated in their own languages. The governments of autonomous republics were responsible for education in their national language beyond their own borders—a policy that bore some similarity to the Austro-Marxist program of “national-cultural autonomy” against which the Bolsheviks had argued prior to 1917.
The same principle applied to the Jewish minority, which had no national territory. A Jewish commission of the Soviet government-administered hundreds of Yiddish-language schools scattered among several national republics. Many leaders of this body came from the Bund, a Jewish Socialist current that had advocated such structures, against Bolshevik objections, before 1917.
By 1924, publishing activity was underway in the Soviet Union in 25 different languages, rising to 44 in 1927.
The Soviet government strove to assure that each nationality was represented in local governmental organs in proportion to its size in the population as a whole. This policy was termed “korenizatsiia”—“indigenization” according to the Oxford dictionary, or “affirmative action” in modern idiom.
The Turkestan region of Central Asia provides a good test case, for there the soviets initially excluded Muslims from their ranks and turned a harsh face to the demands of the Muslim majority. In March 1918, the Soviet government called a halt to this policy, and when soviet elections were held in Turkestan the next month, 40% of those elected were Muslim. The proportion of Muslims in the local Communist Party membership rose from almost zero to 45% by the end of 1918. In 1919, the Communist Party central committee specified that candidates for government office could be nominated independently of the party by any Muslim workers’ organization.
One veteran of those days recalls that Lenin reacted angrily to information that all the soviets in Turkestan used the Russian language, saying, “All our talk about Soviet power will be hollow so long as the toilers of Turkestan do not speak in their native tongue in their institutions.”
By 1927, minority nationals predominated in the soviet executive bodies in their regions.
The Communist Party universities, a major source of new cadres for party and state, gave preference to candidates from minority peoples. By 1924 these peoples made up 50% of the overall student body, roughly equal to their weight in the population. But it took time to make good the imbalance in party membership. By 1927, Muslim peoples’ weight in the party membership had reached about half their proportion of the population as a whole.
Efforts were also made to speed economic development in territories of the Muslim peoples. They were encouraged to enter the working class, which in these territories had previously been almost entirely Russian in composition. Progress was rapid: by 1926, minority peoples made up a majority of the workforce in Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan, and Dagestan, and about 40% in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
These achievements, of course, were possible only through the initiative and leadership of revolutionists from the minority nationalities themselves. With rare exceptions, there was no Bolshevik movement among the Muslim peoples prior to 1917. The leaders of this transformation came mainly from revolutionary nationalist movements—which many Marxists, then and now, disparagingly term “bourgeois.” The central leadership of the Communist Party repeatedly allied with these forces in order to overcome resistance to its policies toward Muslim peoples from within its own ranks.
The Bolsheviks argued within the Communist International in support of their approach toward oppressed nationalities, and it was codified by resolutions of the Comintern’s Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920 and Second and Fourth World Congresses in 1920 and 1922. In his closing remarks to the Baku Congress, Gregory Zinoviev proposed an amended wording to the closing words of the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all lands and oppressed peoples of the whole world, unite”—a concept that remains valid for our times. And armed with this understanding, the International won support rapidly during those years across Asia.
The mood of these years is captured by Babayev, who attended the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku as a young Muslim Azerbaijani in 1920, serving as a guard. Interviewed many years later, he recalled that “when the call to prayer came, he found it natural to set aside his gun during devotions, after which he would ‘go back to defend with our blood the conference and the revolution.’ Inspired by the [conference’s] ‘declaration of holy war against the enemy of revolution,’ he explains, “thousands of people, convinced there was no contradiction between being a Bolshevik and a Muslim, joined the Bolshevik ranks.”
The Muslim delegates also utilized the Baku congress to voice their concerns about chauvinist abuses by Soviet officials in the autonomous republics. A lengthy resolution on this topic was submitted by 21 delegates, representing a wide range of nationalities. In his closing remarks, Zinoviev promised energetic corrective action. After the congress ended, 27 delegates traveled to Moscow to meet with the Communist Party Political Bureau, which adopted a resolution drafted by Lenin. The resolution’s sweeping provisions included the decision to found the University of the Peoples of the East and instructions to rein in the authority of emissaries of the central government in autonomous regions.
During the 1920s, a privileged bureaucratic caste arose in the Soviet Union, headed by Stalin, which showed increasing hostility to the rights of minority nationalities. This trend led Lenin, in his last months of activity, to launch a campaign to defend the rights of these peoples.
After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Stalinist forces gained control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet state apparatus. Soviet republics in Asia were subjected to bureaucratic centralization, chauvinist policies, hostility to minority language rights, and massive counterrevolutionary terror. Nonetheless, the gains of the Russian revolution in the domain of national rights were not wholly extinguished. In particular, the Asian Soviet republics retained enough strength to successfully assert their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Lenin’s pre-1917 articles on self-determination provided the Bolsheviks with a foundation for their course during the revolution. But the Bolshevik approach to the struggle of the oppressed nationalities was radically enhanced by the experiences of the revolution itself. In the process, the Bolsheviks showed a capacity to ally with and learn from the most advanced fighters for national freedom. They set aside old schemas and allowed real social forces to shape their strategy, one that might today be called “unity through diversity.”
Today, in the midst of a new rise of liberation struggles in several continents, the policies of the Bolsheviks of Lenin’s time provide an example of how the working class can ally with oppressed peoples in common struggle. The unity of the working class depends on solidarity with oppressed peoples and sectors. The program of this struggle includes not just political self-determination for oppressed nationalities, but unconditional support for their struggle to win the political, cultural, and economic rights needed to achieve genuine equality. And that may well involve—as in the case of the indigenous peoples of Russia in the years following the 1917 revolution—positive measures to assist these peoples in developing their cultural and political potential as nationalities.
 In Lenin Collected Works, vol. 19, pp. 99-100.
 To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920; First Congress of the Peoples of the East (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1983)
 John Sexton, ed., Alliance of Adversaries: The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2019). For a review of this book, see https://johnriddell.com/2020/12/16/national-revolutionary-movements-and-the-comintern/
 Sharia Law – today commonly associated with politically reactionary groups such as the Islamic State – is in reality simply a code for all Muslims to adhere to based on the Koran, open to interpretation by religious scholars and clerics.
 TSD, p. 307.
 Austro-Marxism was a trend associated with the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Its leading spokespersons were Otto Bauer, Max Adler, Rudolf Hilferding, Karl Renner, Victor Adler, and Friedrich Adler. They became especially noted for their position on the national question, counterposing cultural autonomy for national minorities to the right of nations to self-determination. For Lenin’s view of the latter position, see his “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” in Collected Works, vol. 20, pp. 17-51.
 Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-23, (London: University of London, n.d.), p. 145.
 For Lenin’s comments in 1920 on the terminological side of this question, see Riddell, ed. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite (New York: Pathfinder, 1991), vol. 1, p. 212 or Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 31, p. 241.
 TSD, p. 219.
 TSD, pp. 29-30.