The Bolsheviks and Islam

Gerry Byrne begins an examination of the relationship between the Russian Bolshevik Party that made the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Islamic subject states of the Tsarist empire they inherited. What, if anything, can it teach us about socialists' relationship to Islam today?

"Rewriting history" is generally seen as the province of Stalinism, the falsification of documents and historic records to retrospectively justify a policy turn or to distance oneself from current political enemies. But there is another, subtler way that history can be rewritten, by selective quotation and failure to provide a context for the selected facts.

December 2003 Socialist Review ran the following:

"Bolsheviks and Islam: Religious Rights. Feature Article by Dave Crouch. Socialists can learn from how the Bolsheviks approached the Muslims of the Russian empire."

It doesn't take a Machiavellian genius to work out why that piece appears at that time. At the Respect launch at the end of January, the SWP whipped its supporters to vote down policies they had spent their political lives supporting, in an attempt to keep on board the soft-Islamist MAB and George Galloway, friend of "Third World" despots. How convenient to be able to argue "Lenin would have done the same".

There are two issues here. Is it true that Lenin did the same in similar circumstances? And, just because Lenin did it, does that make it right? The second question implies a concept of virtually papal infallibility to the leaders of the Russian Revolution, hardly a Marxist materialist stance.

But, what are the facts? What does Socialist Review argue? And is it true?

The article covers:

  • Attitude of Marxists to religion (and different attitudes to Islam and Christianity).
  • Bolshevik "colonialism" and Lenin's moves against "Soviet colonialists"
  • Basmachi revolt
  • Sharia law and Muslim schools
  • Islamic socialism
  • Alliances with pan-Islamic groups
  • The Baku Congress of Peoples of the East and its call for "holy war" against imperialism
  • The 1922 Congress of the Comintern, which endorsed alliances with pan-Islamic movements against imperialism
  • Stalinist "Khudzhum" (assault or storming) against Islam. Enlightenment by force.

Fact: Marxism and religion

Marxism is a materialist philosophy and therefore atheist and opposed to religion as irrationalism. But, as materialists, we recognise that religion arises from concrete historical circumstances. Religion has a dual nature, both as a powerful, tyrannous institution, the tool and mouthpiece of oppressors, and as a response to that oppression and alienation, "the cry of the oppressed, the soul of a soulless world". Because of this, we favour the complete separation of church and state. Religion should be a purely individual matter. Marxists are for freedom of religion, but against the institutions of religion being given any power, whether legal or economic, to enforce belief. For the same reason we are for secular education and against religious schooling.

Dave Crouch:

"Marxism is a materialist worldview and so is thoroughly atheist. But because it understands religion to have roots in oppression and alienation, Marxist political parties don't demand that their members or supporters are atheists too. So atheism was never included in the Bolsheviks' programme."

True as far as it goes, and a reasonable corrective to the Stalinist attitude of "enlightenment by force", but one-sided. Where is the recognition of religion as institutional oppression? In painting Islam purely as the "cry of the oppressed", he glosses over its role as oppressor itself. This becomes important later when Crouch talks about the attitude of the Bolsheviks to religious schools. It's impossible not to read his words, from our 21st-century perspective, as a "Bolshevik" defence of religious education.

Bolshevik "colonialism"

The October Revolution took place in the context of the Great War, where the great European empires slugged it out for dominance of the world economy. This was the high water mark of colonial imperialism. Russia was the least developed of the great powers, the most brittle politically. Its empire stretched over vast areas, half the globe, and millions of subject peoples, but its centre was tiny, politically and economically primitive, and its control was always fragile.

The Bolshevik party which made the revolution reflected its origins in a minority class in the most developed centres of Russian capitalism (and in the army). The new workers' state "inherited" an empire. One of its first decrees, within days of seizing power, was the "Declaration of Rights of National Minorities", guaranteeing self-determination and the right to secede. This was in marked contrast to the Provisional Government's desire to hold on to the Tsar's empire.

Like many early Soviet decrees, it reflected the democratic and liberatory thrust of the revolution: the proletarian state, in contrast to all previous class rule, has no desire to hold peoples captive, to perpetuate national and religious oppression.

And there was the exemplary effect of this stance on the masses outside of Russia. The working class of Russia had shown the way not just to the working classes of the capitalist world, but also to the oppressed non-proletarian masses of the colonies, who were already in ferment against the imperialists.

In the event, things were much messier in the outreaches of the Russian empire. In many areas, "Soviet colonialism" replaced the previous Tsarist machinery. In Tashkent, for example, with a 97% Muslim population, the soviet was 100% Russian. Kolesov, Chairman of the Tashkent Congress of Soviets, explained: "It is impossible to admit Muslims to the supreme organs of the Communist Party, because they do not possess any proletarian organisation". And it was true: the railway and textile workers were largely Russian imports. There was a recent history, 1916, of bloody massacres between the Tsarist army, spearheading Russian settlement of Central Asia, and the indigenous Muslim population. Moves to secularise education, close down Sharia courts, and expropriate "waqf" (religious endowment) land, forcibly separating mosque and state, were seen as an extension of Russian colonialism.

Muslim committees existed alongside the soviets, and within months were openly at war. In 1918, troops of the Tashkent Soviet stormed and destroyed the city of Tokand, where a Muslim People's Council had declared autonomy for Turkestan. In Kazan, capital of the Volga Tatars, the soviet declared martial law and arrested the leaders of the Muslim military council (the Harbi Shuro). Many Muslim forces went over to the Whites (anti-Bolshevik forces). But the situation was confused, and some militias changed sides more than once during the civil war. In Chechnya, for example, the Muslims allied with the Bolsheviks (which current Chechen nationalists regard as "the great mistake").

Lenin intervened at this point. He violently opposed the infiltration of Great Russian chauvinism into the Communist Party. The soviet state must in no way be identified with Tsarist imperialism. A Muslim Communist Party, independent of the Russian Communist Party, was recognised, and a Muslim Military College, under the direction of the Tatar, Mir-Said Sultan Galiev (of him more anon), existed for a short time. Half of the Red troops facing Kolchak's Whites on the Eastern front were Muslim. Waqf lands were returned to the mosques and Sharia courts allowed to operate, within the framework of soviet law.

Basmachi revolt

But the damage had been done. Islamic "Basmachi" (bandit) militias declared a jihad or holy war against Bolshevism. Based originally on the nomadic Tadjiks and Uzbeks, they attracted both the traditional Islamic-feudal and tribal elements and the White defenders of Tsarism. Central Asia, cut off from European Russia by the White armies, became the arena for a bloody civil war between the socialist state and the self-styled "army of Islam". The disparate tribal factions were welded into a unified fighting force by the defection of Enver Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turk movement, who had originally been sent to Central Asia as an envoy from the Soviet state.

Socialist Review's treatment of these issues is again one-sided.

"Bolshevik policy to try to make amends for the crimes of Tsarism in the former colonies. Bolshevik leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky understood that this was not only basic justice, but it was also necessary to clear the ground and enable class divisions in Muslim society to come to the fore.…

"Lenin talked about the 'gigantic, all-historical' importance of setting things right. In 1920 he ordered 'sending to concentration camps in Russia all former members of the police, military, security forces, administration, etc, who were products of the Tsarist era and who swarmed around Soviet power [in Central Asia] because they saw in it the perpetuation of Russian domination'."

Bolshevik policy reflected the changing needs of the workers' state, isolated, impoverished, invaded by more than a dozen imperialist armies. The Muslim victims of Tsarist imperialism needed to see their fate as tied in with those of the new socialist state. Insofar as they saw the secularising actions of the soviets as an extension of Russian imperialism, they would be driven to identify with their own native oppressors, they would take up arms against their "liberators".

The imperialists, led by Great Britain, once they had seen off the Kaiser, turned all their attention to destroying the soviet state, as an example to their own working classes, should they be getting any ideas. They were happy to use feudal, tribal, Islamic insurgency to destabilise their enemy. It was just another version of the Great Game, whereby imperial powers fought for ascendancy through their colonial pawns. In this situation, it was urgent for Lenin to get the Muslim masses "on side", and if that meant concessions to the mosques, that was a price that had to be paid, just like the humiliating peace of Brest-Litovsk, to maintain the fragile existence of the soviet state.
I am not sure it is useful to "what-if" with hindsight. The leaders of the Russian revolution made many decisions which went against the grain of freely socialist politics - the banning of political parties, the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny. They did so as reluctant concessions to reality. The Soviet state needed to hang on until the workers of the west came to their aid with their own revolutions. That that didn't happen, that the revolution was isolated in a backward country, we know now.

I see Lenin's defence of the rights of the Muslim national minorities, the oppressed victims of the Tsarist empire, and his opposition to Great Russian chauvinism disguised as "proletarian dictatorship", as wholly in line with the Marxist vision of working class rule as the liberation of all the oppressed. But his concessions to Sharia law, his alliances with anti-imperialist Islamic forces and the fudging of the issue of the possibility of "Islamic socialism", I see as bowing to the exigencies of political reality. I wouldn't want to set myself up as a judge but neither would I elevate the tactical necessities of a civil war to "best practice". On that basis, the SWP should be calling for the banning of trade unions.

In part two I will cover:

  • Sharia law and Muslim schools
  • Islamic socialism
  • Alliances with pan-Islamic groups
  • The Baku Congress of Peoples of the East call for "holy war" against imperialism, and the curious case of Enver Pasha.
  • 1922 Fourth Congress of the Comintern and alliances with pan-Islamic movements against imperialism.
  • Stalinist "Khudzhum" (assault or storming) against Islam. Enlightenment by force.