The Theses on the National and Colonial Question of the Second Congress of the Communist International, which met in July-August 1920, are one of the most important documents of revolutionary socialism. We reprint this text over on page 16. They were drafted by Lenin and amended in important respects by the Congress.
The world dealt with in the resolution has long ago passed into history, bar a remnant here and there. It was a world of great colonial empires ruled from London, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Lisbon. (The Dutch had a large empire in the East Indies, now Indonesia; the Belgians ruled a large part of Africa; Portugal had large African colonies until 1975).
Most of the population of the globe lived in colonial or semi-colonial countries. The struggle for the emancipation of those colonies was seen by the Communist International as an organic part of the world socialist revolution.
Side by side with the colonial revolts which the Communist International of Lenin and Trotsky tried to foment and lead went the struggles for power of the workers in the advanced bourgeois countries which controlled the colonies.
The working class in the colonies was often small; but it was part of the world working class, and part of the world struggle of that class for power. In order to shape and lead the colonial liberation movements in a socialist direction, the small Communist Parties in the colonies would strive to put themselves at the head of the national liberation struggles. Their perspective was that the working class in power in the advanced capitalist countries would help the workers in the ex-colonies lead the masses of peasants and urban poor, and help them overcome the backwardness of their countries.
Things did not go that way. The working class in Europe was defeated and crushed; so was it also in a number of colonies and semi-colonies, most tragically in China, where in 1927 the bourgeoisie massacred thousands of Chinese workers.
In Russia, the Stalinist bureaucratic counter-revolution defeated the working class and the Left Opposition led by Trotsky and Rakovsky. The Stalinists maintained an organisation which they called the Communist International. But its politics were not those of Lenin's and Trotsky'sd time, and neither were its functions. Now it served not the world revolution, but the new ruling class in the USSR.
Stalin crushed the working-class movement in Russia; fascism crushed it in Italy, Germany, and other countries. World War Two was one consequence of those defeats.
In the course of the war and in the twenty or so years after it, the colonial and semi-colonial world was transformed. A series of revolts led by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces, or by Stalinists intent on creating totalitarian states modelled on those of Russia, triumphed in Indonesia, China, Algeria, Vietnam... The colonial powers withdrew quietly from other countries. Colonies became rare.
The last great anti-colonial war was fought against the Russians by the Afghan peoples — under very reactionary leaderships — in the 1980s.
The transformation of the old colonies and semi-colonies has taken places not as the Communist International envisaged it in 1920, as part of the world socialist revolution, but in a world dominated by capitalism and Stalinism. The governments in the ex-colonies and ex-semi-colonies tried to replicate one or other of the two rival world systems, or created hybrids. The working class, and revolutionary socialist politics, in the ex-colonies, was often crushed and stifled, while some of its elements were co-opted into the new regimes. New working classes often developed after independence, but under regimes allowing them little or no space to breath.
Many socialists responded to the great change in the one-time colonies, those that had not gone Stalinist, by saying: Ah, but it isn’t real independence. They are not really independent. They are not the equals of the great economies. They cannot industrialise fully and independently.
That was just another way of saying that they were capitalist-ruled states in a capitalist world. Economic “independence”, in the sense of cutting ties with the world economy, would have been reactionary. The talk of “real independence” was deeply confusing.
The Theses of the 1920 Congress had anticipated that sort of confusion by pointing out that so long as the capitalist market governed relations between richer and poorer states, there could be no equality and only very relative independence.
One of the values of the Communist International’s text is the light it sheds on such questions. Notable too, for things that concern us today, is the posture it takes on pan-Islamism, defining it as something to be fought against by Communists.
The Theses made a radical distinction between bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists who were legalist, compromising, and evolutionist and what they called ‘revolutionary nationalists”. Both types might have pretty much the same political programme, but those who fight for that programme urgently and militantly against colonialism and imperialism were qualitatively better.
With those the Communists could ally, “striking together” against a common enemy while “marching separately” — that is, while maintaining political, and normally organisational, independence for the Communists. It was in the spirit of what James Connolly is reported (perhaps apocryphally) to have said to some of the working-class militants whom he led into the Easter Rising of 1916, side by side with revolutionary nationalists like Patrick Pearse.
“We are going out to be slaughtered. [The plan for a general rising had gone wrong, and those who then decided to rise in Dublin knew they had no chance]. But in the event of victory, hold on to your guns, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty”.
Communists could ally with revolutionary nationalists in their own communist, working-class cause, because the national struggle was part of the world revolution — “the national liberation movements of the colonies and the oppressed nationalities who have been convinced by bitter experience that for them there is no salvation outside an alliance with the revolutionary proletariat and the victory of soviet power over world imperialism”. The assumption was that the revolutionary drive of the revolutionary nationalists meant, above all, shaking the entrenched power of the colonial rulers and their local upper-class allies, and opening more space for the communists to organise independently.
That attitude to “revolutionary nationalists” — in the past, to “revolutionary Stalinists”, and now to “revolutionary political Islam” — is copied by many of the left today, letter-for-letter, without regard to context. Outside the context of an unfolding world socialist revolution, it can confuse and corrupt socialist thinking.
It can lead to political subordination to those “anti-imperialists” who are militant, who do fight, but who are also socially, intellectually, and in terms of the liberation of women, ultra-reactionary.
In a world without a mass Communist International, without a widespread struggle for socialism, without independent communist working-class movements challenging the Islamists and other reactionaries, the victory of such movements is reactionary.
Even in 1920, the congress of the Communist International condemned such movements as the pan-Islamists, and made it a basic task of communists to fight them.
Today it is one of the most tragic features of the would-be Marxist left that much of it suicidally accommodates to people who are utterly reactionary, and who face no competition on their own terrain from strong international working-class communist movements — just because they fight, because they are militant. But they are militant reactionaries, anti-working-class forces through and through.
Reading the precise definitions of the Communist International, whose delegates embodied tremendous experience as well as Marxist erudition, will help focus the issues we face today.
Recipes for today, ready-made paint-by-numbers Marxist policies, you will not find in such texts. But they do provide model of the Marxist method, applied to the world as it was then. As Lenin frequently repeated: “The truth is concrete”. The truth of that world, and of ours.