The Bolsheviks and Islam part 3: Islamic communism

Click here for Part 1.
Click here for Part 2.

Gerry Byrne continues 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?

"All Muslim colonised peoples are proletarian peoples and as almost all classes in Muslim society have been oppressed by the colonialists, all classes have the right to be called 'proletarians'. ...Therefore it is legitimate to say that the national liberation movement in Muslim countries has the character of a socialist revolution."

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a clear articulation of the policy of present day 'Marxists' in allying with Muslim 'anti-imperialist' movements. And indeed if "the national liberation movement in Muslim countries has the character of a socialist revolution" then it would be sectarian to stand apart from it and insist on separate socialist working class politics.

In fact the quote is from 1918, from Mir-Said (Mirza) Sultan-Galiev, Stalin's protégé at the Commissariat of Nationalities ((Narkomnats), writing in 'The Life of Nationalities', the Narkomnats' journal. Sultan-Galiev became, according to Kamenev, 'the first victim of a Stalinist purge' in 1923, when he was arrested for forming an illegal nationalist organisation. But, at this time, he was in favour, head of the Muslim Military College, and his view was arguably no more than an extension of the Bolshevik policy in relation to Muslim nationalism.

At the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Muslim Communist Organisations (in 1919), Lenin stated:
"The socialist revolution will not be only or chiefly a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against its bourgeoisie - no, it will be a struggle of all colonies and countries oppressed by imperialism, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism."

Sultan-Galiev stood in a tradition of Muslim socialism. From the early years of the twentieth century there had arisen a secularising reform movement within Islam, known as 'Jadid'. Within the Muslim intelligentsia was a smaller group of Muslim socialists who saw, as articulated by Hanafi Muzzafar, a Volga Tatar, "Muslim people will unite themselves to communism: like communism, Islam rejects narrow nationalism."

But what did it reject narrow nationalism in favour of?

"Islam is international and recognises only the brotherhood and unity of all nations under the banner of Islam."

Herein lies the crux of it. Muslim communism might make sense as shorthand for a tactical alliance or as an ethnic-religious description, so you could have Muslim communists just as you could have Scottish communists, but as an ideology, a worldview, a systematic understanding of the world, it is self-contradictory (as contradictory as 'socialist Zionism' - which is not to say such people can't exist, only that they are confused as to the meaning of one or other of the terms.)

'Muslim communism' presents problems on both an analytical and a practical political level. It is worth looking at this closely because, as I indicated by the quote at the head of this article, I think a garbled version of this analysis is what underlies current practice of much of the 'anti-imperialist' left (by no means just the SWP - anarchists, neo-Stalinist Maoists, Castroites and the radical anti-capitalists share similar analyses.)

Marx in the Communist Manifesto states that the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle, that the fundamental division of society is between classes, defined by their relationship to the means of production. This, if you like, is the bedrock of Marxist analysis. You can take issue with the particular ways Marx formulated things, or indeed find that he was proved wrong in certain empirical facts. But you can't call yourself a Marxist and deny the class analysis of society.

Now Islam as an ideology, rather than as an individual personal practice, defines the fundamental division of the world along wholly different lines, between the believer and the infidel (this is not unique to Islam!). As Hanafi Muzzafar spelled out, Islamic internationalism is based on the Umma, the brotherhood of all Muslims. It is not the same as proletarian internationalism. Communism, proletarian internationalism, links the common situation of the oppressed masses with a common aim: socialism, the abolition of classes.

Now it may be historically true that "All Muslim colonised peoples are proletarian peoples and … almost all classes in Muslim society have been oppressed by the colonialists" (I would dispute this, but even if it is true, my argument still holds). But this is a contingent historic fact, rather than essential to the nature of being Muslim. It could be otherwise. Indeed, there have been Islamic societies (well before Lenin's time) which enslaved and oppressed other peoples. And certainly, in the present, it would be hard to argue that the Saudi ruling class or the Iranian clerico-fascists "have the right to be called 'proletarians'."

An analysis based on contingent facts, which might change and by their nature would be expected to change, makes for unstable politics. This is precisely what happened.

Muslim communism defines all Muslims as proletarians, but what happens when they clearly are not, when they begin to express their non-proletarian class interests, i.e. want to oppress Muslim and other workers? Whose side are you on? Do you go with Muslim brotherhood or class solidarity? This is precisely the issue posed in the civil war. All classes of Muslim society were oppressed in Russia's Eastern empire, but for some, who accepted the communist programme, this led to a fight to abolish class rule and for others, to the wish to be the new ruling class, now that their colonial oppressors were thrown off.

I said previously it's tempting, with the advantage of hindsight, but not useful, to pronounce on the errors of the Bolshevik leaders. They were making up policy 'on the hoof', in extremely unfavourable circumstances. But on this issue, the relation of socialist revolution to national liberation, I feel they've left a confusing legacy.

The Theses on National and Colonial Question, drafted by Lenin, and adopted by the Second Congress of the Communist International, are now taken by revolutionary Marxists as the definitive treatment of the issue. But these Theses were the subject of much horse-trading, and represent a certain balancing of the interests of the soviet state with the articulation of the Marxist programme.

E.H.Carr, in 'The Bolshevik Revolution', details how the theses came to be adopted. There were two sets of theses being presented, one by Lenin, the other by Indian communist, M.N. Roy. They were discussed in a drafting commission, and, as is the way with committees, what emerged blurred the clear lines of demarcation. The commission's discussion were not fully reported; the proceedings of the Comintern suffered certain translation errors, and latterly deliberate Stalinist falsification, so it is hard to get a clear picture - but the Comintern Theses are now cited as if of holy writ. There seem to be three areas of disagreement between the two sets of theses.

Lenin's original formulation talked of communists in colonial countries supporting "bourgeois-democratic national liberation movements" but with the clear rider, " The Communist International must march in temporary alliance with the bourgeois democracy of the colonies and backward countries, but must not fuse with it and must preserve absolutely the independence of the communist movement even in its most rudimentary form." Roy, in contrast, made a distinction between bourgeois-democratic movements for national independence and the "struggle of landless peasants against every form of exploitation" which required a "the creation of communist organisations of workers and peasants".

Lenin's these were amended to replace "bourgeois-democratic" with "revolutionary" national liberation movements. Now this has the appearance of hardening it up, but in fact it makes it more ambiguous. Lenin's original formulation defines a tactical alliance with alien class forces who share a common temporary aim. The amended version imports the class contradiction to within the communist party, and therefore blunts Lenin's insistence on the class independence of the communists. Roy is clear that "the revolution in the colonial countries will not at first be a communist revolution". This view would be later developed by Stalin, and then Mao, as the two-stage theory of colonial revolution.

Lenin admitted of the possibility, developed by Trotsky in the theory of 'permanent revolution', that it was not necessary for backward countries to inevitably pass through "the capitalist stage of economic development" but could if the victorious revolutionary proletariat came to their aid, "make the transition to the Soviet order, and thence through defined stages of development to communism, avoiding the capitalist stage of development".

This ambiguity over the term "revolutionary" has had a disastrous effect on contemporary politics. Marxists support "revolutionary" (i.e. bourgeois-democratic) national liberation movements because they are democratic, they are against the oppression of a people, a fundamental injustice; but these movements are not "revolutionary" in the sense of communist, they don't share our ultimate aim of a socialist society, and therefore we should never subordinate our politics to theirs. Many contemporary 'Marxists' invert this relationship and equate national liberation with socialism and then subordinate their socialist politics to bourgeois nationalism, albeit "oppressed" bourgeois nationalism.

It is worth adding that the other differences between the two theses, which resulted in amendments to Lenin's draft, had the effect of strengthening the radical thrust, adding an insistence on "the struggle against the reactionary and medieval influence of the priesthood, of Christian missions and similar elements" and "the struggle against pan-Islamism and the pan-Asiatic movement and similar tendencies". These are not mentioned in the Socialist Review article, which glowingly enumerates the tactical alliances with pan-Islamic forces in the civil war.

These amendments seem to have been at the insistence of the Turkish delegate 'who did not wish the Turkish national revolt against western imperialism to degenerate into general sympathy for pan-Islamic movements, such as were being sponsored by Enver'.

The contradiction papered over by the amended theses threatened to come to a head at the first (and only) Congress of Peoples of the East, held in Baku in September 1920, over precisely the issue of Enver addressing the congress. Enver Pasha was one of the leaders of the Young Turk movement, which led a revolution against the Ottoman empire. In Carr's words, "It might by some stretching of language be called bourgeois. But it was in no obvious sense democratic; and it was not a revolution of the workers, whether proletarian or peasant. Nothing in Enver's flamboyant record suggested either a champion either of the proletariat or of oppressed nationalities. He was the author of the notorious Armenian massacres; and there was a large Armenian delegation at the congress." The nearest modern parallel might be Saddam Hussein addressing an anti-imperialist congress containing a large Kurdish delegation! (Unfortunately I can't say it wouldn't happen.)

A diplomatic compromise was reached, wherein Enver didn't exactly appear at the congress but a statement was read (not without protests from the floor) in which he regretted being "compelled to fight on the side of German imperialism". Rather like the Cairo declaration recognising that Saddam Hussein's regime was a little bit undemocratic!

Zinoviev's opening speech to the Congress had set the tone:
'Comrades! Brothers! The time has come when you can start on the organisation of a true and holy people's war against the robbers and oppressors. The Communist International turns today to the peoples of the east and says to them: "Brothers, we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against English imperialism!" (Stormy applause. Prolonged Hurrahs. The members of the congress rise from their seats and brandish their weapons…)

It wouldn't be long before the Bolshevik leaders had cause to regret this diplomatic fudging of principled politics. Enver, who had gone to Central Asia as an envoy from Moscow, defected to the Basmachis. He is credited with organising the previously disparate tribal anti-Bolshevik forces into an effective guerrilla army, thus prolonging the civil war in the East. So even from a pragmatic perspective, communists should be extremely careful of any alliances with "revolutionary" nationalists, and always and everywhere maintain their own independent organisation and programme. Events from the rest of the twentieth century, from China to Iran, bloodily confirm this.

I will conclude by looking at the abrupt Stalinist turn in policy toward Islam, and how, though superficially opposed, it is linked to earlier tactical accommodations.