By Abbie Bakan
The Fourth Congress of the Communist International, or ”Comintern,” in 1922 considered many issues that would be familiar to socialists today. In this politically explosive period—following World War One and the Russian Revolution—much attention turned to the “colonial question.”
The recently published proceedings, Toward the United Front, reveal the scope of debates that were characteristic of the first four congresses of the Comintern. As summarized by translator and editor John Riddell:
“At the time of the Fourth Congress, the Communist movement in Asia and North Africa was just getting established. Communist groups were beginning to take root among peoples in Soviet Asia, where the anticolonial revolution was unfolding at a rapid pace. Small Communist parties had been formed in Iran and Turkey, and a revolutionary group in Egypt had applied for membership. The newly formed Communist Party of China was small but growing rapidly, and Communists in India, led by M.N. Roy, were taking their first steps. In the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Communists among the settlers had led the transformation of their nucleus into a wholly indigenous movement. In contrast, the Communist Party in Algeria was composed of colonial settlers who were uninterested in recruiting native revolutionaries to their movement.”
The Fourth Congress had a solid foundation in earlier congress meetings, with a commitment to support national liberation movements against imperialism and colonialism. But applying this in practice on the ground proved a challenge. Even the allotment of a reasonable amount of time to discuss the “eastern question” was contentious. Manabendra Nath (M.N.) Roy, a founder of the Indian Communist Party and a delegate to the Fourth Congress, indicated the sense of frustration:
“Comrades, the Eastern question should have been dealt with many times already.… And now that this question finally is posed for debate, the time allowed for that is so limited that it is in practice simply not possible to handle the question in anything like a clear manner.”
Roy stressed the changes that had taken place since the revolutionary and anti-colonial upsurge of 1919. He implored the delegates to take heed of the variation among different eastern colonies and contexts, and to note the emerging role of the local bourgeois classes. In some countries, such as India, significant class divisions were emerging within the national resistance movements.
“[T]he various forces and social factors that comprised these movements have become more distinct, even as their economic foundations have developed.…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.…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.”
Marxism and Islam
Other delegates identified the changing relationship between Marxist and pan-Islamic currents within the anti-imperialist struggle. Tan Malaka, for example, a delegate to the Fourth Congress from the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia after independence in 1945), addressed the promise of uniting in practice, and the dangers of a sectarian attitude.
“We have a long experience of pan-Islamism.…In Java there is quite a large association called Sarekat Islam (Islamic Federation), which includes many poor peasants. Between 1912 and 1916 this organisation had perhaps a million members—it could well have been as many as three or four million.…Our party, with thirteen thousand members, went into the popular movement and carried out propaganda there. In 1921 we were successful in getting Sarekat Islam to adopt our programme. The Islamic association spoke out in the villages for control of the factories and for the slogan: All power to the poor peasants, all power to the proletarians! …But in 1921 a split occurred as a result of clumsy criticism of the leaders of Sarekat Islam. The government, through its agents in Sarekat Islam, took advantage of this split and also made use of the decision of the Second Congress of the Communist International: ‘Struggle against Pan-Islamism!’ What did they say to the ordinary peasants? They said: You see, the Communists do not merely want to split your religion, they also want to destroy it…. So we had a split.”
As Tan Malaka appealed to the delegates to understand this error, and to apply the tactic of the united front consistently, the chair interrupted, “Your time is up.” But Tan Malaka replied, “I come from the Indies; I travelled for forty days.” At this point, the proceedings indicate “Applause,” and Tan Malaka continues to draw lessons for the Comintern.
Clearly there are rich lessons in these discussions for socialists who continue to challenge imperialism and to strive to build global solidarity today.