Source: Published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/897-to-the-masses), pp. 1180-1190.
Translation: Translations by John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters & Andy Blunden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission.
Based on the experience of Soviet construction in the East and the growth of national revolutionary movements in the colonies, the Second Congress of the Communist International drew up a general statement of principles on the national and colonial question in the period of extended struggle between imperialism and proletarian dictatorship.
Since then the struggle against imperialist oppression in the colonial and semi-colonial countries has intensified significantly, resulting from the deepened political and economic crisis of postwar imperialism. Evidence of this can be seen in:
1. The collapse of the Sèvres Treaty for the partition of Turkey and the possibility of the full restoration of its national and political independence.
2. The impetuous rise of the national revolutionary movement in India, Mesopotamia [Iraq], Egypt, Morocco, China, and Korea.
3. The hopeless internal crisis of Japanese imperialism, which is causing a rapid development of forces for a bourgeois-democratic revolution and the present transition of the Japanese proletariat to independent class struggle.
4. The growth of the workers’ movement in all countries of the East and the formation of Communist parties in almost all these countries.
The facts enumerated here signify a shift in the social basis of the revolutionary movement in the colonies. This shift tends to intensify the anti-imperialist struggle. And its leadership is thus no longer automatically held by feudal forces and the national bourgeoisie, who stand ready to compromise with imperialism.
The imperialist war of 1914 – 18 and the subsequent protracted crisis of imperialism – above all European imperialism – have weakened the economic tutelage of the great powers over the colonies.
In addition, the same forces that have narrowed the economic basis and political sphere of influence of European capitalism have aggravated the imperialist competitive struggle for colonies, thus disrupting the equilibrium of the entire world imperialist system. This is reflected in the struggle for oil wells, the British-French conflict in Asia Minor, Japanese-American rivalry in the Pacific, and so on.
It is this weakening of imperialist pressure on the colonies, together with the steadily growing rivalry between the different imperialist groupings, that has facilitated the development of indigenous capitalism in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, which has expanded and continues to expand beyond the narrow and restrictive limits of imperialist rule by the great powers. Previously, great-power capitalism sought to isolate the backward countries from world economic trade, in order in this way to secure its monopoly status and achieve super-profits from the commercial, industrial, and fiscal exploitation of these countries. The rise of indigenous productive forces in the colonies stands in irreconcilable contradiction to the interests of world imperialism, whose very essence is to take advantage of the variation in the level of development of productive forces in different arenas of the world economy to achieve monopoly super-profits.
The backwardness of the colonies finds expression in the diversity of the national revolutionary movements against imperialism, reflecting the different stages of transition from feudal and feudal-patriarchal conditions to capitalism. This diversity puts its stamp on the ideology of this movement. To the degree that capitalism arises in the colonial countries on a feudal basis, in stunted and incomplete transitional forms that serve above all to assure the domination of commercial capital, the differentiation of bourgeois democracy from feudal-bureaucratic and feudal-agrarian forces often takes place in a lengthy and roundabout manner. This is the main obstacle to a successful mass struggle against imperialist oppression. For in all backward countries, foreign imperialism utilises the feudal (and in part also semi-feudal, semi-bourgeois) elite of indigenous society as an instrument to achieve its domination (native military governors – tuchuns – in China; native aristocrats and land-tax farmers – zamindars and talukdars – in India; the feudal bureaucrats and aristocrats in Iran; the capitalist landowners and plantation owners in Egypt; and so on).
In this way, the ruling classes of the colonial and semi-colonial countries are shown to be unable and unwilling to lead the struggle against imperialism, to the degree that this struggle takes the form of a revolutionary mass movement. Only where the feudal-patriarchal relationships have not yet disintegrated to the point where the native aristocracy has fully separated out from the popular masses, as for example among nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, can the representatives of these elites come forward as active leaders in struggle against imperialist violence (Mesopotamia, Mongolia).
In Muslim countries, the national movement is initially guided by the religious and political slogans of pan-Islamism. This provides an opportunity for great-power officials and diplomats to utilise the prejudices and ignorance of the broad masses in struggle against this movement (thus British imperialism dabbles in pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism; the British plans to move the Caliphate to India; French imperialism’s pretence at ‘Muslim sympathies’). Nonetheless, to the degree that the national liberation movements extend in scope, the religious-political slogans of pan-Islamism will be more and more replaced by specific political demands. This is shown by the recent struggle in Turkey to separate secular power from the Caliphate.
The main task that is common to all national revolutionary movements is to achieve national unity and political independence. How this task is carried out depends on the degree to which a given national movement is capable of breaking all its ties with the reactionary feudal forces, and thus win over the broad working masses and give expression in its programme to their social demands.
Well aware that the desire of the nation for political independence can be expressed, under different historical conditions, by the most diverse social forces, the Communist International supports every national revolutionary movement against imperialism. However, it does not ignore the fact that the oppressed masses can be led to victory only by a consistent revolutionary line aimed at drawing the broadest masses into active struggle and an unconditional break with all those who seek conciliation with imperialism in order to maintain their own class rule. The native bourgeoisie’s ties to reactionary feudal forces permit imperialism to exploit extensively feudal anarchy; the rivalry between individual leaders, lineages, and tribes; the antagonism of town and country; and struggles between occupational layers and national religious sects, in order to disorganise the people’s movement (see China, Iran, Kurdistan, and Mesopotamia).
In most countries of the East (India, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia [Iraq]), the agrarian question is of paramount importance in the struggle for liberation from the yoke of great-power despotism. By exploiting and ruining the peasant majority of the backward nations, imperialism robs them of their basic means of survival. Meanwhile, the resulting rural surplus population cannot be absorbed either by local industry, which is developed only in a few centres, or by emigration, for which possibilities are completely lacking. The impoverished peasants remaining on the land are reduced to the status of serfs.
In the advanced countries, before the war, industrial crises acted as the regulators of social production. In the colonies, this role is played by famine. Given that imperialism has an intense interest in achieving huge profits with a minimum investment of capital in the backward countries, it sustains as long as possible the feudal and usurious forms of exploiting labour power. In some countries, such as India, it takes over the existing feudal state’s monopoly ownership of the land and transforms the land tax into a tribute to great-power capital and its local servants, the zamindars and talukdars. In other countries it secures the land rent by acting through existing organisations of large landowners, as in Iran, Morocco, Egypt, and so on. The struggle to free the land from feudal dues and limitations thus takes on the character of a battle for national liberation against imperialism and feudal land tenure. Examples can be found in the uprising of the Moplah against the landowners and the British in India in the autumn of 1921 and the Sikh uprising of 1922.
Only the agrarian revolution, which adopts the aim of expropriating large landholdings, can set the mighty peasant masses in motion. It is destined to have a decisive influence in the struggle against imperialism. Bourgeois nationalists (in India, Iran, and Egypt) fear agrarian slogans and seek every possibility to water them down. This reveals the close links of the native bourgeoisie with the feudal and feudal-bourgeois great landowners, on whom they are ideologically and politically dependent. All revolutionary forces must utilise this vacillation to reveal the irresolution of bourgeois leaders of the nationalist movements. It is this irresolution that obstructs organising and unifying the working masses, as has been shown by the failure of the policy of passive resistance ('non-cooperation’) in India.
The revolutionary movement in backward countries of the East cannot be victorious unless it bases itself on the activity of the broad peasant masses. The revolutionary parties of all Eastern countries must therefore formulate a clear agrarian programme, which demands the complete elimination of feudalism and its surviving institutions: large-scale land ownership and the leasing out of the land tax. In order to draw the peasant masses into the struggle for national liberation, this programme must demand a radical change in the basis of land ownership rights. It is equally necessary to compel the bourgeois national parties, as far as possible, to adopt this revolutionary agrarian programme as their own.
The new workers’ movement in the East is the result of recent development of indigenous capitalism. Previously the working class there – even considering only its more advanced elements – was still in a state of transition, on the road from the small craft workshop to the large capitalist factory. To the degree that the bourgeois nationalist intelligentsia draws the revolutionary working-class movement into the anti-imperialist struggle, its representatives will also initially lead the burgeoning trade union organisations and their activity. Initially, in this activity, the proletariat does not go beyond the framework of ‘common national’ interests of bourgeois democracy (thus the strike against the imperialist bureaucracy and administration in China and India). It often happens – as the Communist International’s Second Congress noted – that representatives of bourgeois nationalism, drawing on the moral and political authority of Soviet Russia, seek to adapt their bourgeois-democratic aspirations to the class instincts of workers by presenting them in a ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ guise. In this way they seek, sometimes without being conscious of the fact, to divert the initial proletarian associations from the immediate tasks of class organisation. (Thus the Yeşil Ordu party in Turkey, which has given a communist colouration to its pan-Turkism, and also the ‘state socialism’ advocated by some representatives of the Kuomintang party in China.)
Nonetheless, both the trade union and also the political movement of the working class have made great progress in recent years in the backward countries. It is very significant that independent proletarian class parties have been formed in almost all the countries of the East, even if the vast majority of these parties still have a great deal of internal work to do in order to rid themselves of dilettantism, sectarianism, and other shortcomings. The fact that the Communist International has from the outset duly acknowledged that the potential of the workers’ movement in the East is of tremendous importance, for it provides eloquent proof of the genuine international unification of proletarians of the entire world under the banner of communism. By contrast, the Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals have so far failed to find supporters in a single one of the backward countries, precisely because they are playing merely the role of ‘servants’ of European-American imperialism.
Bourgeois nationalists view the workers’ movement in terms of whether it will contribute to the victory of the bourgeoisie. By contrast, the international proletariat views the new workers’ movement of the East in terms of its revolutionary future. Under capitalist rule, the backward countries will not be able to share in the achievements of modern technology and culture, without paying an enormous tribute to great-power capitalism in the form of savage exploitation and oppression.
The workers of the East need to ally with the proletariat of the advanced countries not only for the sake of their joint struggle against imperialism but also so that they may obtain from the victorious proletariat of these countries unselfish aid in the development of their backward productive forces. The alliance with the western proletariat opens the road to an international federation of Soviet republics. For backward peoples, the Soviet order represents the least painful transition from primitive conditions of existence to the advanced culture of communism, which is destined to replace capitalist production and distribution in the entire world economy.
This is shown by the experience of Soviet construction in the liberated colonies of the Russian empire. Only the Soviet form of government is capable of securing the consistent implementation of a peasant-based agrarian reform. The particular conditions of agriculture in certain parts of the East (irrigation) were previously maintained by a special form of collective labour organised on a feudal and patriarchal basis. Later, this was undermined by systematic capitalist overcropping. They need a type of state organisation that can meet social needs in a systematic and organised manner. As a result of particular climatic and historical circumstances, cooperatives of small-scale producers will play an important role in the transitional period across the East as a whole.
The objective tasks of the colonial revolution are extending beyond the framework of bourgeois democracy, simply because a decisive victory of this revolution is incompatible with the rule of world imperialism. Initially, the native bourgeois intelligentsia forms the vanguard of the colonial revolutionary movements. But as the proletarian and semi-proletarian peasant masses are drawn into these movements, and to the degree that the social interests of these lower layers come to the fore, the big-bourgeois and agrarian bourgeois forces begin to turn away from the movement. The young proletariat in the colonies faces a lengthy struggle during an entire historical epoch – a struggle against imperialist exploitation and against its own ruling classes, who hold exclusive possession of all the advantages of industrial and cultural development and seek to keep the broad working masses in their earlier ‘prehistoric’ condition.
This struggle for influence over the peasant masses must prepare the indigenous proletariat for the role of political leadership. Only when the proletariat has accomplished this task in its own ranks and with respect to the social layers closest to it will it be capable of challenging bourgeois democracy, which in the backward conditions of the East is even more hypocritical than in the West.
Any refusal of Communists in the colonies to take part in the struggle against imperialist tyranny, on the excuse of supposed ‘defence’ of independent class interests, is opportunism of the worst sort that can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East. No less damaging is the attempt to remain aloof from the struggle for the immediate interests of the working class in order to pursue ‘national unity’ or ‘civil peace’ with the bourgeois democrats.
The Communist workers’ parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries have a double task: both to fight for the most radical possible resolution of the tasks of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, aimed at winning political independence, and also to organise the worker and peasant masses in struggle for their particular class interests, profiting from all the contradictions in the nationalist bourgeois-democratic camp.
By putting forward social demands, Communists provide an outlet for revolutionary energy that cannot be expressed in bourgeois-liberal demands, and spur on its development. The working class in the colonial and semi-colonial countries must be aware that only the broadening and deepening of the struggle against the yoke of the imperialist great powers can serve to secure for them a revolutionary leadership role. On the other hand, it is only the economic and political organisation and political education of the working class and the semi-proletarian layers that can expand the revolutionary impetus of the struggle against imperialism.
The Communist parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries of the East, which are still at an embryonic stage, must take part in every movement that provides them with access to the masses. Nonetheless, they must wage an energetic struggle against patriarchal and craft prejudices and against bourgeois ideology, which is predominant in the workers associations, in order to protect these undeveloped forms of trade unions from reformist tendencies and to transform them into organs of mass struggle. They must make every effort to organise the numerous agricultural day workers and apprentices, both men and women, on the basis of defence of their immediate interests.
The slogan of the proletarian united front was advanced in the West during a transitional period of gathering forces together organisationally. So too in the colonial East at present, the slogan of the anti-imperialist united front must be emphasised. The suitability of this slogan flows from the perspective of an extended, lengthy struggle against world imperialism, demanding the mobilisation of all revolutionary forces. This mobilisation is all the more necessary, since the native ruling classes tend to make compromises with foreign capitalism that are directed against the interests of the popular masses. And just as the slogan of proletarian united front in the West contributes to exposing Social Democratic betrayal of proletarian interests, so too the slogan of anti-imperialist united front serves to expose the vacillation of different bourgeois nationalist currents. This slogan will also promote the development of a revolutionary will and of class consciousness among the working masses, placing them in the front ranks of fighters not only against imperialism but also against survivals of feudalism.
The workers’ movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries must strive above all to achieve the role of an independent revolutionary force in the overall anti-imperialist front. Only when its autonomous weight is acknowledged and its political independence is thus safeguarded is it permissible and necessary to conclude temporary agreements with bourgeois democracy. The proletariat supports immediate demands, and advances them itself – such as, for example, the demand for an independent democratic republic, for assuring that women obtain rights, and so on, to the degree that the current relationship of forces does not permit it to implement its soviet programme as an immediate task. At the same time, the proletariat seeks to advance demands that promote a political alliance of the peasant and semi-proletarian masses with the workers’ movement. One of the most important tasks of the anti-imperialist united front tactic is to explain to the broad working masses why they need an alliance with the international proletariat and the Soviet republic. The colonial revolution can only win – and defend its victory – together with the proletarian revolution in the highly developed countries.
As a result of inter-imperialist rivalry, the danger of a deal between bourgeois nationalism and one or several of the contending imperialist powers is much greater in the semi-colonial countries (China, Iran) or in countries struggling for their political independence (Turkey), than it is in the colonies. Any such agreement involves a quite unequal balance of power between the native ruling classes and imperialism. Under cover of formal independence, it leaves the country in its previous status of a semi-colonial buffer state in the service of world imperialism.
The working class recognises that temporary and partial compromises are permissible and necessary in order to achieve a breathing spell in the revolutionary struggle for liberation against imperialism. But it must conduct an irreconcilable struggle against every attempt to establish an open or concealed power-sharing agreement between imperialism and the native ruling classes aimed at preserving the latter’s class privileges. The demand for a close alliance with the proletarian Soviet republic is characteristic feature of the anti-imperialist united front. While advancing this demand, a determined struggle must be carried out for comprehensive democratisation of the political order, in order to rob politically and socially reactionary forces of their points of support in the country and provide working people with organisational freedom in the struggle for their class interests (for a democratic republic, agrarian reform, tax reform, administrative reorganisation on the basis of extensive self-government, protective labour legislation, restriction of child labour, protection of mothers and children, and so on). Even in independent Turkey, the working class enjoys no freedom of association, a telling indication of the bourgeois nationalists’ attitude to the proletariat.
The steady, uninterrupted growth of imperialist rivalry is a further reason for organising an anti-imperialist united front. This rivalry has now become so acute that unless international revolution intervenes, a new world war focused in the Pacific is inevitable.
The Washington conference, an attempt to ward off this threat, served in reality only to deepen and intensify the imperialist rivalries. The recent struggle in China between Wu Peifu and Zhang Zuolin was a direct result of the failure of attempts by Japanese and Anglo-American capitalism to reconcile their respective interests in Washington. The new war threatening the world will involve not only Japan, the United States, and Britain, but also other capitalist powers (France, the Netherlands, etc.). It could well cause even more destruction than the war of 1914 – 18.
The task of Communist parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries on the Pacific is to carry out energetic propaganda to explain this danger to the masses. They should summon them to militant struggle for national liberation, and orient to Soviet Russia as the bastion of all the oppressed and exploited masses.
In view of the threatening danger, the Communist parties of the imperialist countries – the United States, Japan, Britain, Australia, and Canada – are obliged not to limit themselves to propaganda against the war but also to make every effort to eliminate the factors that disorganise the workers’ movement in these countries and make it easier for the capitalists to utilise national and race antagonisms. These factors are the questions of immigration and of cheap Coloured labour.
The chief method of recruiting Coloured workers today on the sugar plantations in the southern Pacific today is the contract system, which brings in workers from China and India. This fact has led workers of the imperialist countries to demand the passing of laws against immigration and against Coloured labour, both in the United States and in Australia. These laws deepen the antagonism between Coloured and white workers, fragmenting and weakening unity of the workers’ movement.
The Communist parties of the United States, Canada, and Australia must wage a vigorous campaign against laws that restrict immigration, and explain to the proletarian masses of these countries that they too will suffer harm because of the race hatred stirred up by these laws.
The capitalists oppose such anti-immigration laws because they favour free importation of cheap Coloured labour as a means of driving down the wages of white workers. There is only one way to successfully counter the capitalists’ intention to go over to the offensive: the immigrant workers must be admitted into the existing trade unions of white workers. At the same time, the demand must be raised that the wages of Coloured workers be brought up to same level as white workers’ pay. Such a step by the Communist parties will expose the capitalists’ intentions and also demonstrate clearly to the Coloured workers that the international proletariat does not harbour any racial prejudice.
To carry out these steps, the representatives of the revolutionary proletariat in the countries of the Pacific must convene a Pacific conference to work out correct policies and determine the appropriate organisational steps for an effective unification of the proletariat of all races in the Pacific.
Given the exceptional importance of the colonial revolutionary movements for international proletarian revolution, work in the colonies must be heightened, above all by Communist parties in the imperialist powers.
French imperialism is basing all its calculations for the suppression of proletarian revolutionary struggle in France and Europe on the utilisation of its colonial workers as a reserve army of counterrevolution. British and American imperialism still continue to divide the workers’ movement by winning the workers’ aristocracy to its side with the promise of a certain share in the superprofits drawn from colonial exploitation.
Every Communist party in countries that possess colonies must take on the task of organising systematic ideological and material assistance for the proletarian and revolutionary movement in the colonies. They must strenuously and stubbornly oppose the quasi-socialist colonialist tendencies of some categories of well-paid European workers in the colonies. The European Communist workers in the colonies must seek to organise the indigenous proletarians and win their trust through specific economic demands (raising the level of native workers’ pay to that of European workers, laws to protect labour, insurance, and so on). The creation of separate European Communist organisations in the colonies (Egypt, Algeria) is a hidden form of colonialism and furthers only the interests of imperialism. Any attempt to build Communist organisations on the basis of national characteristics contradicts the principles of proletarian internationalism.
All parties of the Communist International are obligated to explain to the broad working masses the vital importance of the struggle against imperialist rule in the backward countries. The Communist parties active in great-power countries must form standing commissions on the colonial question from among the members of their Central Committees, in order to pursue these goals. The support of the Communist International for Communist parties of the East must be expressed above all through assistance in organising their press and in bringing out publications and newspapers in the local languages. Special attention must be paid to work among the European workers’ organisations and the occupation troops in the colonies. The Communist parties of the great-power countries must not miss a single opportunity to expose the predatory colonial policies of their imperialist governments and of the bourgeois and reformist parties.
1. See ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’ in Riddell (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! (New York: Pathfinder Press 1991), vol. 1, 283 – 90.
2. The Moplah or Mapilla are Muslim inhabitants of Kerala and neighbouring states. Their August 1921 uprising against British rule was repressed, and 3,000 – 10,000 Moplah were killed. The Akalis, a militant community of Sikhs in Punjab, carried out actions to regain control of Sikh holy places, notably at Guru-ka-Bagh in September 1922.
3. Mohandas Gandhi, main leader of the Indian National Congress, suspended the massive non-cooperation movement in India in February 1922, in response to an incident in February in which protesters had violently retaliated against police killings. The following month, Gandhi was jailed by British authorities.
4. Yeşil Ordu (Green Army) was a left nationalist political association, formed in Angora in the spring of 1920 with the support of Mustafa Kemal’s government. Its policies combined radical socialist, nationalist, and Islamic themes.
5. Representatives of nine governments met at the Washington Conference (12 November 1921 – 6 February 1922) to discuss naval disarmament and conflicting interests in the Pacific. The Soviet republic protested its exclusion and declared it would not be bound by conference decisions. The Comintern warned against a U.S.-British bid for world hegemony at Japan’s expense. The conference adopted a five-power agreement for naval arms limitations, which lasted until 1936.
6. For a discussion of the conflict between Wu Peifu and Zhang Zuolin, see Toward the United Front, pp. 712-13.