The Cook Islands in the South Pacific were annexed by the British Empire. On 11 March 1919 the colonial authorities on the main island of Rarotonga sent a telegram to New Zealand: “Serious disturbances by returned soldiers who are taking charge of settlement. Require armed assistance. Can you send warship or other assistance? Fifty armed men at least required.”
The rebels were war veterans who had come across the ideas of the Bolsheviks while serving the empire on the battlefields of Europe. As it happens the few soldiers were easily subdued, but the imperial powers feared the spread of revolutionary ideas from then on, and were right to do so. The Cook Islands are a tiny example, but at this time the majority of the world’s population lived under imperial control, so how they would achieve liberation was a central issue.
Capitalism expanded into imperialism in the late 1800s, as cut-throat competition led the big powers to divide the globe into empires, so they could control markets and resources. In the process they incorporated the whole world into the capitalist system. This imperial conflict led to the carnage of the First World War.
Britain was still the dominant imperial power at the war’s end, though it faced constant competition from France, Germany and the US. Many colonial people noticed the hypocrisy of the victorious powers crowing about national self-determination at the Versailles Peace Conference while keeping the majority of the world’s population in servitude.
The empires either directly ruled colonies, as with India and much of Africa, or dominated the economies of officially independent states in a condition of “semi-colonial” rule, for example China or Mexico. This second is closer to modern imperialism across the Global South with its special economic zones for foreign companies.
Resistance to the imperialists tended to be led by middle class radicals who hoped to get a better place within colonial empires, or by nationalists, who aimed to become a new ruling class. The war had boosted nationalism around the world. Britain’s oldest colony, Ireland, rose up demanding independence.
All colonial people are oppressed by imperialism, but the experience of the middle classes who feel excluded from rule and the workers and peasants is different. The Bolsheviks came up with practical ways to work with both, but always keep independent organisation that looked to the interests of the poor.
Most socialist organisations in the west at the time accepted the idea of a national interest. This had drawn them to back their own rulers in the First World War and in turn led them to support their own empires. As late as 1943 the Labour Party would still be arguing of the African colonies, “For a considerable time to come these peoples will not be ready for self-government, and European peoples and States must be responsible for the administration of their territories.”
The Communists on the other hand called for immediate independence for all colonies. The Russian revolutionary leader Lenin said in 1919, “The socialist revolution will not be solely or chiefly a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie. No, it will be a struggle of all the colonies and countries oppressed by imperialism.”
This was not a matter of returning to the pre-colonial situation, as it had to involve freedom for the most oppressed groups in those societies — peasants. As a practical step the victorious Bolsheviks established the Communist International, or Comintern, as a world party of revolution in 1919. Its methods included the centrality of class struggle, thoroughgoing internationalism, working with other forces in united fronts and an unwavering commitment to anti-racism.
This was why the Bolsheviks hosted the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920 in Baku, on the Caspian Sea, part of the former Russian Empire, which Lenin had called a “prison house of nations”.
The Baku congress was intended to show that the Bolsheviks were not merely concerned with workers in industrialised countries. It was aimed at all peoples from the Russian Empire, but also from other colonised countries. It attracted people from the semi-colonised and colonised worlds. The Russians described the colonial world as the East — so while it primarily referred to Asia it also concerned itself with Africa and South America. Indeed the US socialist John Reed spoke on Mexico at Baku.
After the revolution the Bolsheviks had declared that the oppression of Muslims, that had been so central to the Russian Empire, was at an end. “Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable.” This attitude was one reason why so many Muslims came to support them during the Russian Civil War.
For women the congress demanded, “Complete equality of rights;…unconditional access to educational and vocational institutions;…equality of rights of both parties in marriage”.
The international fallout from the congress deserves much more attention than there is space to give here. The first such conflict that the Communists related to was Turkish resistance to invasion. Turkey was the shrunken heart of the massive Ottoman Empire, which had been on the losing side in the war and was now being dismembered by the victors.
Opposition to this was led by a combination of nationalist and pan-Islamic forces which each claimed to represent all the people. However, as the Baku congress commented, “The general national revolutionary movement in Turkey is directed only against foreign oppressors” and it ignores the agrarian question and that of taxes.
The Soviet government trained and armed Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish nationalists, knowing that their victory would be a major blow to the imperial powers. But they also correctly predicted that once in government Ataturk would put down revolutionary activity. This knowledge was why the early Lenin had warned, “Don’t paint nationalism red”.
The contradiction of how to work with nationalists to weaken imperialism, but without compromising the separate interests of the workers and peasants, is at the heart of all the arguments that follow. The key question in each case was whether the working class was strong enough to have an independent Communist Party that could shape struggles.
Lenin wanted to find out about the experience of resistance in the colonial world and invited Indian revolutionary MN Roy to come and discuss the best ways to organise in the colonial world. India was Britain’s key colonial prize, but Roy had gained his experience as a participant in the Mexican Revolution. He went on to be one of seven founding members of the Indian Communist Party (CPI), which was set up on Soviet territory in Tashkent in 1920. Many of its early recruits were former Pan-Islamists.
It was in China that the Comintern policy met its most amazing success and one of its most tragic failures. The country had been in ferment since the overthrow of the last emperor in 1911 and a fascination grew with western ideas. The nationalist Guomindang became the dominant organisation of resistance. At the same time, modern factories were growing along with a working class to run them.
Historian Harold Isaacs reports, “Factory workers lived and toiled in conditions comparable only to the worst helotry [slavery] of the early stages of the industrial revolution in England. Men, women and children worked for 12, 14, and 16 hours a day…without the most elementary provisions for their safety and hygiene.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921. Just four years later it was playing a leading role in a mass revolutionary movement after the British used Indian troops to shoot down Chinese workers in the Shanghai international settlement setting off the epic Hong Kong general strike.
Revolutionaries bitterly disputed the degree to which they should collaborate with the nationalists. In 1923 the CCP had agreed to join the Guomindang, which was being armed and trained by Soviet Russia. But the Comintern advised that, “The party must maintain its independent organisation with a strictly centralised apparatus.” This was good advice that would have saved them from the disaster to come.
The Russian Revolution’s isolation, particularly after the defeat of the German Revolution and the death of Lenin in 1924 allowed the rise of ideas that lacked faith in the ability of workers to act independently. In May 1925 Stalin made a speech calling the Guomindang a “workers’ and peasants’ party” — painting it red. The CCP was told to dissolve itself into this allied organisation, giving up its political independence.
By 1927 revolution was shaking China. In scenes akin to Petrograd in 1917, workers under Communist leadership took control of the major industrial city of Shanghai. Revolutionary Zheng Chaolin recalled the situation in the city: “The streets were bustling with people. Not shoppers, but armed workers, unarmed workers, students and women marching up and down on demonstrations.”
This was a chance to renew the international revolutionary wave that began with October. But when Guomindang troops arrived in Shanghai the Communists handed it to their supposed allies. The nationalists were now more afraid of the workers than the imperialists and turned on them, drowning the revolution in blood. They massacred the CCP cadre, which had handed over membership records as instructed by Stalin.
CCP leader Chen Duxiu resigned from the organisation’s central committee. He was outraged that the Comintern “wishes us to carry out our own policy on the one hand, but does not allow us to withdraw from the Guomindang on the other”.
It is amazing that such a young organisation had recruited so many workers and learned the tactics to lead an insurrection so rapidly in the heat of struggle. But the Comintern’s refusal to allow the CCP to break from the nationalist forces led to the defeat of the revolution, which degenerated from a workers’ uprising with the potential to transform society to a nationalist struggle for control of the existing system. It was this defeat that shifted the CCP from a worker-orientated organisation to one that focused on peasants and the countryside.
The defeat of the German Revolution had blocked the revolutionary tsunami that spread across the industrialised world. The tragic and unnecessary defeat of the Chinese Revolution worked in the same way, blocking the attempt to apply the Bolshevik method across the colonial world.
Leon Trotsky had developed his theory of permanent revolution after the 1905 Revolution in Russia, to explain how socialist revolution was possible in an economically backward country, when most Marxists at the time assumed it could only happen in one of the main capitalist centres. At first he had thought the theory specific to Russia, but he generalised it after the debacle in China in 1926-27. Chen and several of the other CCP leaders came to agree with Trotsky’s analysis, and his criticisms of the Comintern policy.
But most of the Communist movement came to a different conclusion that it was necessary to look to forces other than the working class — blocks of classes and the popular front.
The inspiration of the October Revolution continued to spread, even if the advice the Comintern gave became less reliable. So it is worth looking at another example, the much more long-term and at first unrewarding attempts to link up with revolutionaries across Africa.
Revolutionaries faced a number of massive obstacles regarding Africa. The anti-colonial movement was young and pulled in many different directions. They faced their own political naivety and the hostility of the imperial powers.
The most important organisation attempting to link up revolutionaries was the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW). Based in Hamburg, Germany, a port where African sailors could be contacted, it set out to create a network of black militants. Its paper The Negro Worker was banned throughout colonial Africa and the Caribbean. Its successes included creating links with people like Jomo Kenyatta, who would go on to become Kenya’s first president.
The committee’s highpoint was organising the International Conference of Negro Workers in Hamburg in 1930 to discuss building an international revolutionary movement. Many delegates went on to Russia for more overtly revolutionary discussions, where they called for “the immediate evacuation by the imperialists of all negro colonies and for complete independence”.
But much of the organisation’s work concerned the slow work of gathering one or two radicals in different countries and starting to put down roots. South Africa was the only country in sub-Saharan Africa that actually had a Communist Party. Still, by the time Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia — then known as Abyssinia — in 1935, it was possible to coordinate some actions internationally.
The South African Communist Party called on dock workers not to load ships supplying food to the invading army, saying, “By defending Abyssinia, you will be striking a blow against all the white robber imperialists of Africa and bring nearer the day when the black man of South Africa shall also be free.”
This action built respect for Communist ideas, and pushed movements in a Pan-Africanist direction, calling for independence now, as Baku and the Comintern had.
But by the mid-1930s the Comintern wound up the ITUCNW just when its militant tactics might have won wider influence. Russia was now fully under control of the Stalinist leadership who wanted a “popular front” with the imperial powers against the rise of Nazi Germany. For Stalin this meant dropping active calls for immediate uprisings against colonialism.
The Russian leadership dissolved the Comintern during the Second World War, abandoning the idea of world revolution for that of building a series of national socialisms in one country that would be allies.
The Russian Revolution inspired a tidal wave of solidarity that washed around the globe because it talked about ending oppression and always siding with the oppressed.
The impact of October can be seen in the obituary speech that US black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey gave for Lenin in 1924:
“The revolution…took out of the hands of the privileged class the destiny of Russia’s government… For over five years Lenin and Trotsky were able to hold the Russian peasantry together and established for the first time in modern days…a government wherein the people ruled… Russia promised great hope not only for negroes but for the weaker people of the world.”
While later Communists still looked to Stalinist Russia for leadership, what attracted them was not its watered down, nationalist or class collaborationist politics. It was the idea that this fulfilled the October Revolution’s promise of an end to oppression.
Now that the dominance of Stalinist politics has passed we should remember that they were a distortion of an earlier tradition with a real potential to sweep aside imperialism and oppression worldwide.
Further Reading: To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East, edited by John Riddell and The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution by Harold R Isaacs