Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East


The Congress of the Peoples of the East held in Baku in September, 1920 holds a special place in the history of the Communist movement. It was the first attempt to appeal to the exploited and oppressed peoples in the colonial and semi-colonial countries to carry forward their revolutionary struggles under the banner of Marxism and with the support of the workers in Russia and the advanced countries of the world.

The summons to Baku was issued by the Second Congress of the Communist International, which met in July and August in Moscow. In making this call, the Second Congress made a conscious break with the neglect of the national and colonial question by the Second International, based as it was almost exclusively on European parties. It recognised both that it was a prime duty of working class revolutionaries to support the struggle of their colonial brothers and that the colonial revolution could be a valuable ally in the overthrow of imperialism in its strongholds. Further, in 1920 the whole colonial and semi-colonial world was aflame, especially in the countries bordering the Soviet republic, so that these movements could be of direct assistance in warding off the offensive of the imperialists, notably the British, with the aim of establishing their power on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. This was the atmosphere in which the Congress met.

Its delegates came from former Tsarist colonies now fighting to become Soviet republics, from Turkey and Persia, then in revolutionary ferment, and even from China, India and japan. For some of them the journey was hazardous. The Russian historian Sorkin describes how the British imperialists tried to prevent delegates from Turkey and Persia from getting to the Congress. British naval vessels based on Constantinople patrolled the Black Sea coast, and only when stormy weather caused them to put back into port did the Turkish delegates succeed, at great risk, in getting across to Tuapse, from where they proceeded to Baku. In the Caspian British aircraft — presumably based in Persia — bombed the ship in which Persian delegates were crossing to Baku: two were killed and several wounded.

Although of the almost 1,900 delegates who flocked to Baku some 1,200 were recorded as Communing, few of them had much experience in the Marxist movement. There was a leaven of seasoned revolutionaries, including some who had been members of the Bolshevik Party in Azerbaidzhan, Armenia and Kazakhstan since well before the 1917 revolution.

Baku, the great oil capital of Russia, had been a stronghold of the party, with its large and cosmopolitan proletarian population drawn by the prospect of jobs in the petroleum industry. After joining the Revolution, the city had been temporarily lost and had only recently again been brought under Bolshevik rule when the Congress opened. It was, however, a most appropriate place in which to hold such a gathering, by virtue of its revolutionary traditions and the successful struggle to hold it for the revolution so recently concluded. Moreover, it was familiar to Turks and Persians as well as the former subject peoples of the Tsarist Empire as a great industrial and cultural centre, and, for many, as a place of work.

In his concluding speech, Zinoviev spoke of the Congress as ‘a great historical event’. He pointed out that people the bourgeoisie had looked upon as draught animals were now rising in revolt and that nationalities separated by language and historic enmities were now coming to recognise their common interests in a struggle against imperialism. ‘Our congress has been heterogeneous, motley, in its composition,’ he pointed out, but it had been united on all fundamental questions. There is little doubt, unfortunately, that Zinoviev’s optimism was premature. The follow-up to the Congress did not fulfil its promise, nor was it possible to resolve the difficulties and differences resulting from the national and colonial question with speeches alone.

This does not mean that the documents of the Congress are not worth studying. If its lessons have been neglected, that must be laid at the door of the Stalinists who, in the 1920s, threw the weight of the Communist Parties behind bourgeois nationalist movements like the Kuomintang and condemned them to disaster. It is due to Stalinism that the Baku Congress has usually been passed over with a few ‘safe’ references and no attempt has been made to reprint its proceedings or discuss its lessons. In fact this is the first time the minutes have been made available in an English translation, as part of the necessary education of the revolutionary movement about its past.

There are of course other reasons why the Stalinists and their apologists do not encourage study of the Baku Congress. Its leading figures, entrusted by the Communist International with the important work of encouraging the building of sections in the underdeveloped areas and among the national minorities in the Soviet Union, Zinoviev, Radek and Béla Kun, were to be murdered by Stalin in the 1930s. But the same fate was to await countless delegates to the Baku Congress. Of those who made speeches printed in this volume, Ryskulov and Narimanov are known to have perished in Stalin’s purges after having become leading figures in the Communist Party. Also victims were two of those nominated to the Council for Action and Propaganda — Avis (A.S. Nuridzhanian) from Armenia, Guseinov from Azerbaidzhan, as well as Kareyev and perhaps others. The purges struck deep into the republics of the nationalities, reflecting no doubt Stalin’s own past record of contempt for the peoples of these regions of which the Baku Congress was a living condemnation.

At the time when the Congress was held, it should be remembered, Communist Parties properly speaking had not been established in most of the colonial and semi-colonial countries. These countries remained extremely backward; it might be said that in many respects they continued to live under medieval conditions and some of the speakers describe the extent of feudal oppression and exploitation which still remained. In most of them, too, the native bourgeoisie was extremely weak and the nationalist movement was still at its beginnings. There was, therefore, a great opportunity for Communists to place themselves at the head of the mass movement by establishing the connection between the struggle against imperialism and the need for social revolution and particularly the agrarian revolution in these lands. These principles were expressed by the speakers and in the documents approved by the Congress. The question was to carry them out in practice in the building of revolutionary parties.

This was, perhaps, the greatest weakness of the Congress. Zinoviev, who dominated it, counted too much upon the Soviet example generating spontaneous support from the oppressed masses as though a few rousing speeches would be enough. He never understood or supported the theory of the permanent revolution and thus the connection between the tasks of the Communist International, and the colonial revolution. It was not enough to call for a holy war against imperialism: this would remain rhetoric if it was not followed up by the training of cadres and consistent work among the masses. It was not enough to point to the fact that members of hostile nationalities were able to work together in the enthusiasm of a great Congress, it was necessary also to combat all the sources of division and enmity. Particularly careful attention had to be given to the hold of Islam in many of the countries to which the Congress was directed and the best way to prise the masses away from their traditional allegiances without antagonising them.

The very heterogeneity of the Congress caused problems, as the reader will observe. Some of them resulted from difficulties in translation into the many languages represented, a process which consumed time and led to some impatience on the part of delegates. The Present translation has been made from the official Russian report, published in 1920. Brian Pearce, the translator, points out that this report contains many misprints, and there is evidence that the stenographer misheard some of what was said, not surprisingly since there was a background of noise and movement on the part of delegates, many of whom spoke in unfamiliar accents. A good deal of the material in the Congress proceedings was translated into Russian on the spot, perhaps by interpreters whose knowledge of one, or both, languages involved was far from perfect. There was little constructive editing and it may be that some of the speeches were considerably abridged in the official report. Some writers who refer to the Congress claim that some Muslim representatives protested against alleged massacres of their co-religionists by pro-Bolshevik forces, including many Armenians, during the Civil War. Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that there was high-handedness and disregard for national rights and susceptibilities on the part of some Soviet officials, an issue which contributed to the break between Lenin and Stalin. At the same time it should be remembered that opposition to the Bolsheviks came from reactionary Muslim feudalists and semi-bandit movements like the Basmachi, themselves given to looting and massacre. The situation had been made still more complex by the ebb and flow of battle and the changes in political control in former Tsarist territory since the Revolution. Some of the delegates worked with or may have been sympathisers of the bourgeois-democratic Musavat movement which had held power in Baku and Azerbaidzhan for a time. Some nationalists may have seen in the Congress a way of enlisting support for their cause without sharing the social revolutionary aims of the Bolsheviks. This was evidently the case with many of the Turks and Persians, including the notorious Enver Pasha who obviously tried to use the Congress for his own ends (see note p. 195). At the same time agents of imperialism were active in these circles and a report of the Congress reached the British authorities through an Indian agent. The imperialists obviously had an interest in stirring up national and religious differences and then blaming the friction onto the Soviet regime. Most accounts of the Congress by bourgeois historians, it may be added, are strongly biased by anti-Sovietism and Cold War feeling, at once identifying Zinoviev’s call for a ‘holy war’ as being an appeal to the Muslims and accusing him of neglecting religious susceptibilities. In short, they are still fighting the wars of intervention and trying to defend the policies of the imperialist countries.

The question of who would win was decided in the former Tsarist colonies by the victory of the Red Army in the Civil War, to which the sympathy of the masses for the aims of the Bolsheviks and their actions against the landlords and capitalists made a decisive contribution. But the political questions still remained in suspense as the subsequent history of the nationalities in the Soviet Union was to show. On the one hand there was the ‘Great Russian chauvinism’ expressed by Stalin and displayed in the policy of the bureaucracy, on the other the ‘nationalist deviations’, real or imputed, of which some of those who took part in the Baku Congress were later to be accused. In fact, despite its boasts, the bureaucracy has not solved the nationalities question in the Soviet Union to this day.

The other question was the help which the Soviet state and the Communist movement should render to nationalist movements in the colonial and semicolonial countries. This gave rise to important discussions at the Second Congress of the Communist International at which theses embodying a principled position were passed. Even in the early 1920s the attitude towards particular movements, for example that in Turkey, was influenced by the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy and the fear that adjacent countries could become springboards for further wars of intervention. Also, as Trotsky was aware, involvement in these countries could give rise to difficulties just at the time when the Soviet state needed a breathing space for internal consolidation.

There is a difference between such strategic and diplomatic considerations which the Soviet government had to contend with and the opportunism in relation to the national bourgeoisie as manifested in China in the mid-1920s with disastrous results> It is perfectly clear from the speeches made at Baku that the appeal to the peoples of the East was based upon the destruction of class as well as national oppression. The principal enemy at that time was British imperialism, with its stranglehold over India and now extending its tentacles all over the Middle East, though already frustrated in its attempt to move into the former Tsarist colonies. But the Congress, in issuing its call for a ‘holy war’ against British imperialism, also called on the masses to rise against their internal enemies, and to establish Soviet power against local oppressors as well as foreign capitalists. In predominantly agrarian countries successful revolution meant the seizure of the land and thus the elimination of landlordism. Everywhere the native bourgeoisie was closely allied with the landlords, or would become so, in defence of private property; this was to be demonstrated within a few years in China. Today, in countries like India where the national bourgeoisie is in power, it has steadfastly opposed an agrarian revolution and rules in alliance with the landlords and rural capitalists while using all the forces of the state to crush the revolutionary struggles of the peasantry.

Central to the decision to hold the Congress was the need for solidarity between the working class of the advanced countries and the oppressed peoples of the colonies and semi-colonies. This was not only stressed in the speeches by the representatives of the Communist International, but also by the presence at the Congress of leading figures from the Communist Parties of the metropolitan countries: Tom Quelch from Britain, Alfred Rosmer from France, Steinhardt from Austria and John Reed from the United States. This was intended to be more than a symbolic gesture: all of them came straight from the Second Congress of the Communist International, where the fight had been waged for these parties to break with the bad traditions of the Second International and become active campaigners against their ‘own’ imperialism and for the freeing of the colonies unconditionally.

There are many lessons for today in studying the proceedings of the Baku Congress. It was an historic Congress quite different from anything previously held in the working class movement and not at all like the peace fronts and international conferences sponsored by the Stalinist bureaucracy today at which representatives of the national bourgeoisie, butchers of the workers and peasants in their own countries, in many cases, are honoured guests. This was a Congress of fighters, enthusiastic and in some ways bewildering even to its sponsors. It was also a young Congress, of delegates in their twenties or thirties, most often lacking in political knowledge or experience. It met under very difficult conditions and it had to combat religious and other prejudices in its own ranks. It was significant that although many of the delegates were Muslims, women were invited and spoke and a resolution was passed for the liberation of women from traditional bonds.

Above all, whatever its shortcomings, the keynote of the Congress was its internationalism. This was before Stalinism, with its ‘theory’ of ‘socialism in one country’, had trampled underfoot the principles fought for by the Communist International under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. It was understood that the revolutionary struggles in the different parts of the world were integrally related and that the fate of the Soviet Union itself hinged upon the spread of the revolution worldwide.

Tom. Kemp.
February 1977