M. N. Roy
Fourth Congress of the Communist International

Speech in Discussion of the Eastern Question

November 22, 1922

Source: Published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/472-toward-the-united-front), pp. 150-151
Translation: Translation by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission.

Comrades, the Eastern question should have been dealt with many times already. It should have been taken up in connection with the capitalist offensive, for when you speak of this offensive, you should not ignore the reserves on which capitalism is based and which it can call on in the future. But this was not the case. And now that this question finally is posed for debate, the time allowed is so limited that it is in practice simply not possible to handle the question in anything like a clear manner. Therefore I am rather pessimistic regarding the possibility of portraying for you in a fundamental and detailed manner conditions in the Eastern countries, which in my opinion are quite important for the prospects of a decisive victory for the movement in the Western countries. But I will do my best, despite the shortness of the time at my disposal.

The Second Congress of the Communist International settled on the main principles regarding national liberation struggles in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.[1] It expressed the main principles that govern the relationships of the proletarian revolution and the proletarian movement in economically advanced countries with the national struggle of backward peoples. The experiences that we had gained by 1920, at the time of the Second Congress, did not enable us to develop these principles very fully. However, since those days the movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries has experienced a long period of development. And despite everything that the Communist International and the Communist parties of the West have left undone and ought to have done in order to establish closer relations with these movements and develop them, despite everything, we are now in a position to discuss these movements in the colonial and semi-colonial countries with more knowledge, experience, and understanding.

The theses adopted by the Communist International’s Second Congress confirmed that fundamentally the national movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries is objectively revolutionary, and thus forms part of the worldwide revolutionary struggle. It was therefore decided that the Communist parties of the Western countries, and especially of the imperialist countries, should do all in their power to assist these movements. But at that time we did not know how these instructions and this resolution of the Second Congress could be carried out. Only a few then understood that the inclusive term ‘colonial and semi-colonial countries’ embraced quite different regions and peoples. Furthermore, these regions and peoples included every form of social development and of political and industrial backwardness.

Our view was that simply because they were all politically, economically, and socially backward, they could all be tossed into a sack, and that the problem on a general level would be resolved. But that viewpoint was incorrect. Today we know that the Eastern countries cannot be treated as a politically, economically, or socially homogeneous entity. Assuming the Communist International takes it seriously, the Eastern question is therefore more complex than that of the struggle in the West. The social character of the movement in the Western countries is uniform. In the East that is not the case.

The countries of the East can be divided into three categories. Firstly, the countries in which capitalism has reached a rather high level of development. In these countries, not only has industry developed due to the inflow of capital from the great centres of capitalism, but also a native capitalism has gained strength. This has promoted the emergence of a bourgeoisie with a developed class consciousness and its counterpart, a proletariat, which also has class consciousness and is engaged in economic struggles that gradually becomes a political one.

Secondly, there are countries where capitalist development has begun but is still at an elementary level, and feudalism still constitutes the backbone of society.

There is also a third level, where primitive conditions still prevail, and the social order is dominated by patriarchal feudalism.

Given that the lands termed ‘colonial and semi-colonial countries’ can be divided into such dissimilar categories, how is it possible to develop a general programme or broad policy guidelines for them all, in order to promote the development of a revolutionary movement?

Our present task at the Fourth Congress is now to thoroughly elaborate the basic principles that were adopted by the Second Congress of the Communist International. Today we face the concrete problem of how to promote the movement’s development in these countries. For despite all the differences just mentioned, in all of these countries we are dealing with a revolutionary movement. Yet since their social structures are dissimilar, so too is the nature of their revolutionary movements. To the degree that their social character differs, so too must these movements’ programme vary, and so too must their tactics.

Taking this into account, all the Eastern delegations present at this congress, working jointly with the Eastern division of the Communist International, have prepared theses that have been submitted to the congress.[2] These theses present the overall situation in the East and the movement’s development since the Second Congress. They also indicate the guidelines for the movement’s development in these countries.

At the Second Congress, that is, immediately following the imperialist war, we noted a generalised uprising among the colonial peoples, resulting from intensive economic exploitation during the war.

This great revolutionary uprising created a sensation around the world. There was a rebellion in Egypt in 1919, and one in Korea that same year. In the countries lying between these far-distant points we noted a more or less intensive and extended upsurge. But at that time these movements were nothing more than great spontaneous risings. Since then the various forces and social factors that comprised these movements have become more distinct, even as their economic foundations have developed.

As a result, forces that two years ago were active participants in these movements are now seen to have gradually withdrawn from them, or even to have quit them entirely. Thus in the countries with more capitalist development, for example, the highest layer of the bourgeoisie, that is, the layer that already owns what one might call a stake in the country and has invested significant capital and built up industry, now considers it more advantageous for them to shelter under imperialist protection. For when the great social uprising took place at the end of the war and developed into a revolutionary tempest, it was not only foreign imperialists but also the native bourgeoisie that took fright at the potential of this movement.

In none of these countries is the bourgeoisie sufficiently developed to be confident in its capacity to replace foreign imperialism and then maintain ‘law and order’. In reality they now fear that if foreign rule is overthrown, this revolutionary uprising could lead to a period of anarchy, chaos, and the disorders of civil war, which would be damaging for their interests. In other words, the industrial development of the bourgeoisie requires law and order, which in most of these countries was introduced by foreign imperialism. Given the threat posed to this law and order and the possibility of disturbances and revolutionary uprisings, it now seems more appropriate to the native bourgeoisie to conclude a compromise with the imperialist authorities.

This of course weakened the movement in some countries. Nonetheless, this temporary compromise cannot shake the foundations of these movements. In order to maintain its rule in these countries, imperialism must seek points of support locally. It must have a social foundation and assure itself of the support of one or another of the classes of native society. Today it has found it necessary to reject the old methods of exploitation, and it has made certain political and economic concessions to a sector of the native bourgeoisie. These concessions have appeased the native bourgeoisie for the moment, while also opening up broader perspectives for this class. They have acquired a taste for economic development and have created capitalist competition. For the moment that industry begins to grow in the colonial countries, it undermines the foundations of imperialist capitalism’s monopoly.

That is why the temporary compromise between the native and imperialist bourgeoisies cannot be of long duration. In this compromise lie the seeds of future conflicts.

This imperialist policy of compromise has also been introduced in the second group of countries, where usury, commercial capital, feudal bureaucracy, and feudal militarism are the dominant social forces and the leaders of the national movement. But the results of this policy have been less satisfactory than in the [more developed] countries. The interests of the feudal bureaucracy and the colonial feudal lords cannot be as readily appeased as is possible between the imperialist and native bourgeoisies. We therefore see that in the course of recent years the nationalist struggle in Turkey has taken first place among all the colonial struggles.

But the recent developments in Turkey show us equally the weak side of this situation. For we know that a national struggle and national political awareness cannot develop so long as the social economy of the people in question is still dominated by feudal patriarchy. So long as there is no bourgeoisie that assumes leadership of the society, no national struggle can arise in all its revolutionary potential. Although we know that it is dangerous for the colonial bourgeoisie to continually make compromises with the imperialist bourgeoisie, in principle we must be in favour, for a bourgeois national movement in the colonial countries is objectively revolutionary and must therefore be supported. But we must not overlook the fact that this objective factor must not be accepted unconditionally, and that specific historical factors must also be considered. The bourgeoisie becomes a revolutionary force when it directs the rebellion against the backward and outworn social forms, that is, when the struggle is directed fundamentally against feudalism, and the bourgeoisie leads the people. In such conditions the bourgeoisie is the vanguard of revolution.

But this cannot be said of the new bourgeoisie in the Eastern countries, or at least of its main components. Although the bourgeoisie leads the struggle there, it directs it not against feudalism but against foreign capitalism. It leads the struggle of the weak and undeveloped and oppressed bourgeoisie against a strong and developed bourgeoisie. Instead of a class struggle, this is so to speak a conflict within a single class, and as such, it presents a basis for compromise.

Therefore, the nationalist struggle in the colonies and the revolutionary struggle for national development there cannot be founded exclusively and simply on a movement inspired by bourgeois ideology and led by the bourgeoisie. We now see that in every country all these leading forces – the liberal bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and the feudal military cliques in the second group of countries – are gradually making attempts to reach compromise agreements with the imperialist rulers and imperialist capitalism.

This reality raises the question whether another social factor can possibly intervene in this struggle and wrest leadership out of the hands that have to this point directed the struggle.

We note that in the countries where capitalism is sufficiently developed, such a social factor is already beginning to appear. A proletarian class is coming into being in these countries. And where capitalism has begun to oppress the peasantry, this has created a large mass of poor and landless farm workers. These masses are gradually being drawn into the struggle, which therefore is no longer merely economic but is taking each day a more political character. In the countries where feudalism and the feudal military cliques still hold the leadership in their hands, we also see the emergence of a growing agrarian movement. In every conflict and struggle we see the interests of imperialist capitalism coinciding with those of the native landowners and the native feudal class. When the popular masses arise and the national movement becomes revolutionary in scope, it will threaten not only imperialist capitalism and the foreign domination. In addition, the native upper classes will join with the foreign exploiters.

We see a dual struggle in the colonial countries, directed simultaneously against foreign imperialism and the native privileged classes, which indirectly or directly reinforce and support foreign imperialism.

That forms the basis for the question that we have to investigate. How can the native bourgeoisie and the native privileged classes, whose interests run counter to those of imperialism, or whose economic development is blocked by imperialism, be encouraged and supported in taking up the struggle? We must discover how the objective revolutionary significance of these factors can be utilised. At the same time we must bear in mind that these forces can be effective only up to a given point and no further. We must be aware that they will go only so far and no further, and then they will seek to halt the revolution. We have already had such experiences in every country. An overview of the movement in all the Eastern countries during recent years would have helped us in developing our programmatic points, but this is not possible in the available time. Nonetheless I believe that most of you are rather well acquainted with the movement’s development in these countries. You know that the movements in Egypt and India have been brought to a halt by the fearfulness and vacillation of the bourgeoisie. And a great revolutionary movement that embraced the broad masses of peasants and the working class and seriously threatened imperialism was unable to cause it serious damage for the simple reason that its leadership lay in the hands of the bourgeoisie.

This bourgeoisie is divided into two groups. The upper layer is industrially developed and presides over major industrial and commercial interests, which are linked with imperialist capitalism. This layer saw the danger posed by this movement and therefore went over to the imperialist side. It thus became a positive obstacle for the revolutionary national movement with its weak social foundations. It did not have the determination and courage to place itself at the head of the great revolutionary movement in order to lead it forward. As a result the movement, betrayed and misled by these forces, landed in its present condition of decline.

On the other hand we have the example of the Turkish struggle, which is taking place at this moment. You are aware that the significant victory of the Turkish people has not been carried through to its logical conclusion thanks to the feudal military clique that at present heads the movement. Whether the Turkish people can achieve a complete victory and the full political and economic liberation of the Turkish nation has been put in question, in order to serve the interests of a small feudal military clique who consider it more advantageous to sell out to a group of imperialists. This clique preferred to link up with one group of imperialists against another. That could lead to the enrichment of this group and to Mustafa Kemal Pasha ascending the throne in place of the sultan, who was mainly a tool of British imperialism. But that does not in any way resolve the Turkish national question.

And we know that during the two or three months that revolutionary forces around the world were celebrating the victories of Mustafa Kemal Pasha, they received word that in free Turkey, liberated by the revolutionary power of workers and peasants, Kemal is now brutally persecuting all those who strive for the welfare of workers and peasants.

That is proof of the fact that although the bourgeoisie and the feudal military clique may take the leadership of the national revolutionary struggle in this or that country, the time will come when these people will surely betray the movement and become a counter-revolutionary force. We must educate the other social force, which is objectively more revolutionary, in such a way that it can shove aside the others and take the leadership. Until that is done, a decisive victory of the nationalist struggle at the present time remains in question.

Although we did not perceive this problem so clearly two years ago, there was already an objective tendency in this direction, and as a result we have Communist parties, political mass parties, in almost all the Eastern countries. We know that the Communist parties in most of these countries cannot actually be called Communist parties in the Western sense of the word. But their existence shows that social factors in these countries are calling forth political parties – not bourgeois parties but parties that express and reflect the demands, interests, and hopes of the popular masses, of the peasants and workers. They are replacing the type of nationalism that fights only to economically develop and politically reinforce the native bourgeoisie.

The existence of Communist parties in these Eastern countries assumes even more significance if we view the matter from another point of view. The bourgeoisie in the colonial and semi-colonial countries unfortunately arrived too late on the scene, 150 years too late, and is in no way ready to play the role of liberator. It neither can nor will go further than a given point. For that reason the nationalist revolutionary movement in these countries, where millions and millions crave national liberation and must free themselves economically and politically from imperialism before they can make further progress, will enjoy no success under the leadership of the bourgeoisie.

Thus we see that Communist parties are necessary, even if for the moment they are no more than cells. These parties are destined to play a great role and to take over the leadership in the national revolutionary struggle, when it is abandoned and betrayed by the bourgeoisie. They will be capable of carrying forward the struggle for freedom from imperialism. They alone will be in a position to assist the oppressed nationalities in winning full political and economic independence.

These parties are historically destined and socially enabled to take up this task because they are based on the objectively most revolutionary factors, namely the workers and peasants. These factors share no common interest with imperialism, and their social status and economic conditions cannot improve so long as these countries remain under capitalist-imperialist rule.

That is why the national revolutionary struggle in these countries can achieve ultimate victory only under the leadership of the workers and peasants, that is, of a political party that represents them.

Comrades, the need to organise Communist parties in these countries brings us to the question of their programme and tactics. I must point out that when the Communist International debates its programme, it must take into consideration the fact that developing the International’s programme in the countries of the East is very complicated. It is all the more complicated given that – and this must unfortunately be conceded – our comrades of the Communist International have so far devoted very little time to studying this question.

Before we write a programme and develop policies to be adopted by the Communist parties in the East, it is important that the International’s different sections devote a bit more attention to these questions and study them more carefully. This would not be wasted labour, because the power of the bourgeoisie in its own countries is at present very tightly linked to the situation in the colonial countries. Imperialism is right now making the attempt to save itself through the development of industry in the colonial countries.

During the war, imperialism – and especially British imperialism – considered it necessary to apply more flexibility in its monopoly of control over the industrial and economic life of the backward colonial countries. Thus India, for example, which had for 150 years served as an agricultural preserve and source of raw materials for British industry, was during the war permitted adequate industrial development. The shattering of capitalist equilibrium in Europe forces imperialism to search for new markets, in order to bring world capitalism back into equilibrium. They hope to find this in the colonial countries through the industrial development of countries like India and China. That is the way they are trying to resolve this problem.

By relying on the raw materials of the colonial countries, imperialism seeks to guide its offensive against the European proletariat to a devastating victory. We must not lose sight of this tendency. Of course we can raise the objection that this cannot happen, because it is in imperialism’s interests to keep the colonial countries backward in order to absorb all the goods produced in the dominant countries. Well and good, but that is a very mechanical way to view the question. We must not forget that if we lengthen the skirts of the Chinese by a couple of inches, world textile production has to be doubled. Industrial development makes it possible to raise the living standards of 400 million Chinese and thereby double the world’s textile production. The industrial development of China does not necessarily lead to a reduction in production in the main capitalist countries. If these countries develop industrially, they need machines, and so on, which they cannot produce themselves. The colonial market will be reduced and limited for some types of products, but where machines are concerned, it must be expanded.

In addition, a portion of the production of Britain and other countries that was previously marketed in Central and Western Europe must now find new buyers, and that can happen only if the capacity of colonial countries to consume increases.

As you see, the unification of imperialist and native capital in the colonial and semi-colonial countries will play a major role in the overall plans for the capitalist offensive. In order to be capable of resisting the capitalist offensive in the European countries, we must bring our striking force into alignment with the movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries.

The experiences we have gained during the last two years in coordinating our strength with that of the bourgeois nationalist parties in these countries teach us that making this link is not always practicable. It is necessary for us to have our own parties in these countries, and we must have them. Through the agency of these parties we can utilise the bourgeois revolutionary parties to the greatest possible extent.

That brings us to the question of the anti-imperialist united front. Shoulder to shoulder with the united front of the working class in the Western countries, we must organise an anti-imperialist united front in the colonial and semi-colonial countries. Its goal is to organise all available revolutionary forces into a great united front against imperialism. The experience of the last two years has proven that this front cannot be achieved under the leadership of the bourgeois parties. We must develop our parties in these countries, in order to take over the leadership and organisation of this front.

In the Western countries, the proletarian united front tactic promotes an accumulation of organisational strength, exposes the betrayal and compromising policy of the Social Democratic parties, and leads to struggles. In the same way, the campaign for an anti-imperialist united front in the colonial countries will free the movement from the fearful and wavering bourgeoisie and bring the masses more actively into the vanguard, so that the revolutionary social forces can constitute the movement’s foundation and thus secure its final victory.



1. See ‘Resolution on the National and Colonial Questions’, in Riddell (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991), vol. 1, pp. 283 – 90.

2. Riddell (ed.), Toward the United Front: Proceedings and Documents of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Historical Materialism Book Series, 2012) pp. 1180-90.