The Communist International and its Impact on Asia
An excerpt from Red Star Over the Third World published by LeftWord Books
From "Soviet Asia"
The Communist International struggled to balance the needs of its European members with the members from the countries colonized by Europe. The former represented the countries of the colonizers. They had to fight in their own societies to build organizations of the working class and other allied classes at the same time as they were charged with driving an anti-colonial agenda. The Comintern’s attempt to get them to hold a Colonial Conference spluttered. It was difficult to find out what these European communists – seen as a pipeline to the colonies – were doing in terms of practical work to build alliances between workers in their countries and in the colonies. These European communists found it difficult to work amongst workers in their countries who had been dominated by a labour aristocracy that was often pro-imperialist. It was not easy to push a double agenda – for the rights of the European workers and for the workers and peasants in the colonies. No such difficulty lay in the colonies – from Indo- China to the Gold Coast of Africa. But other difficulties haunted communists in the colonies. They found it difficult to create a precise framework to work with the bourgeois nationalists who also hated colonial rule but who had no problem with capitalism. These contradictions dampened the work of the Comintern. Nonetheless, it was through the Comintern that trade unionists and revolutionary nationalists from one end of the world found out about the work of their peers on the other side. The infrastructure of global communism was created by the Comintern activists, who travelled from one end of China to the other end of Mexico to meet with socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, rebels of all kinds to urge them towards unity with the Communist movement.
Papers such as The Negro Worker allowed unionists across the continents to keep up with each other and to experience the unity that allowed them to magnify their work.
The Trinidadian Marxist intellectual C.L.R. James observed the work of his Trinidadian friend George Padmore, head of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers. ‘It must be remembered that men in Mombasa, in Lagos, in Fyzabad, in Port-au-Prince, in Dakar, struggling to establish a trade union or political organization, most often under illegal conditions and under heavy persecution, read and followed with exceptional concern the directives which came from the revered and trusted centre in Moscow’, James wrote. This ‘trusted centre’ was the Comintern. It provided the necessary organization to help workers from one end of the world to be in touch with others at the other end. Padmore edited The Negro Worker, which gave ‘hundreds of thousands of active Negroes and the millions whom they represented’ access to the world, wrote James. It gave them insight into ‘Communism in theory and the concrete idea of Russia as a great power, which was on the side of the oppressed’. This, James wrote even as he was critical of the USSR, ‘is what The Negro Worker gave to the sweating and struggling thousands in the West Indies, in Nigeria, in South Africa, all over the world’.
Platforms such as Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (Workers’ International Relief – IAH) emerged initially to help draw attention to the struggles inside the USSR with hunger – to enable Europeans mainly raise funds to help prevent famine. But the work of the IAH would eventually widen outwards, building solidarity campaigns from Japan to Mexico, from Argentina to Australia. The IAH worked from Germany, but turned its energy outwards towards the ‘oppressed and exploited’ peoples of the world. It enabled communists and their allies to forge connections across continents and deepened the relations of radicals within their own countries. It allowed words like ‘solidarity’ to take on a tangible meaning. This would not have been possible without the active support of Moscow.
From one end of the planet to the other, Comintern agents such as Mikhail Borodin carried instructions and methods, wondering how best to help along the revolutions. Alongside them were men and women of the colonies who came to Moscow, studied revolutionary theory and then found their way back home to build communist parties against all odds.
These people led colourful lives, dangerous lives, going from factory gate to printer’s shop, from prison to exile. Their journeys were unpredictable – the Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy becomes a founder of the Mexican Communist Party, while the Chilean socialist Luis Emilio Recabarren becomes a founder of the Argentinian Communist Party. Dada Amir Haidar Khan (1900-89) leaves his remote village in Rawalpindi for the merchant marine, becomes an activist of the American Communist Party and then goes to the USSR to train at the University of the Toilers of the East, which sends him to India. Yusuf Salman Yusuf (1901-49) – known as Fahd – met a Comintern agent Piotr Vasili who helps him go to the University of the Toilers of the East, which sends him back to Iraq after a sojourn in Europe. Tan Malaka (1897-1949), who leaves the Dutch East Indies to study in Holland, returns to become a popular educator and communist, finds himself in exile and then in Moscow for the Fourth World Congress of the Comintern. Hồ Chí Minh (1890- 1969), meanwhile, works on the ships and the
hotels inFrance, the United States and on the Atlantic Ocean. He becomes a founder of the French Communist Party, goes to the USSR to study at the University of the Toilers of the East and then returns to Indo- China to lead his country to revolution. Each of them was born close to 1900 and each lead a colourful life, marked by the October Revolution which occurred in their teens.
These were the people who lived along the circuits of the Comintern, for whom the USSR was a crucial node to develop their own ideas and to build their own revolutionary theories and networks.
In June 1917, Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev of Bashkiria, who had been secretary of the All-Russia Muslim Council, described why he had joined the Bolshevik party:
Only they are striving to transfer the nationalities’ fates into their own hands. Only they revealed who started the world war. What doesn’t lead me to them? They also declared war on English imperialism, which oppresses India, Egypt, Afghanistan, Persia and Arabia. They are also the ones who raised arms against French imperialism, which enslaves Morocco, Algeria and other Arab states of Africa. How could I not go with them? You see, they uttered the words that have never been uttered before in the history of the Russian state. Appealing to all Muslims of Russia and the East, they announced that Istanbul must be in Muslims’ hands.
Sultan-Galiev’s words resonated not only from his native Bashkiria to the outer reaches of the Uzbek homelands but also in India, where tens of thousands of Indian Muhajirs sought to head out towards Istanbul to defend the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. These pan-Islamists ran into news of the USSR. In Kabul, Abdur Rab Peshawari told them, ‘in Russia, a revolution had taken place and if we went there we could see and learn many things’. When a group arrived in Termez (in today’s Uzbekistan), ‘Red Army soldiers and officers came with a band, playing music to welcome’ them. The Commander of the fort in the town told them to ‘see how the Soviet country had changed after the revolution’. In Tashkent, these men who came to fight for pan-Islamism ‘used to refer to themselves as Communists’. ‘Several of these young muhajirs decided to go to the Soviet Union’, writes the communist leader Muzaffar Ahmad, ‘the land of revolution, rather than Turkey’. Seventeen students went to the University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow, while others studied in Tashkent at the Indian Military School (‘one of us was taught to fly an aeroplane’). ‘We had left our country once’, wrote Ahmad. ‘But after joining the Communist Party we were again anxious to return home’. They returned in pairs via Iran.
The connection between communism and pan-Islamism played an important role in this period. In 1922, Indonesia’s Tan Malaka put this point explicitly,
Alongside the crescent, the star of the Soviets will be the great battle emblem of approximately 250 million Muslims of the Sahara, Arabia, Hindustan and our Indies. Let us realize that the millions of proletarian Muslims are as little attracted to an imperialist pan-Islamism as to Western imperialism.
This was written in September. The next month, Tan Malaka was busy with the preparations for the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. He proposed that the Comintern should take up the issue of closer collaboration between pan-Islamism and Communism. His proposal was struck down. There was uneasiness for fairly obvious reasons, mostly to do with the very conservative tone struck by the Muslim clerics which resulted in their class alliance with the reactionary forces in their societies. There was no room in the debate to consider the more robustly anti-imperialist clergy, which was also not always keen on the feudal social patterns. These would be the old networks enlivened by Jamal al-din al-Afghani, the iterant anti-imperialist activist of the 19th century. Tan Malaka knew of those people and of Sarekat Islam (the Islamists Trade Union) in the Dutch East Indies, which would – for a while – be an important ally of the Indonesian Communist Party.
For these revolutionaries, from India to Khiva, colonialism was an abomination. They longed for a world of freedom, where the workers and peasants would be in command of their destiny. Sultan-Galiev warned that the new USSR should not ‘replace one class of European society by the world dictatorship of its adversary – that is, by another class from this same society’. Such a swap would ‘bring no significant change in the situation of the oppressed part of humanity’. The USSR had to properly forge an anti-colonial and anti-racist future. Otherwise, it would slip into old habits of colonialism. ‘In order to prevent the oppression of the toiler of the East’, Sultan-Galiev said in 1918, ‘we must unite the Muslim masses in a communist movement that will be our own and autonomous’. This was a lesson that many Russians could not learn. It is what Lenin feared. It is what became the basis of decades of struggle between the capitals of Soviet Asia and Soviet Europe.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, writer, journalist, and the current Chief Editor of LeftWord Books.