Revolution Decentered: Two Studies on Lenin

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat (1920-21)

In the “prologue” to his 1932 work, Lenin buonanima, the infamous Italian writer Curzio Malaparte points to what he deems “the clearest sign of the decadence of the bourgeoisie in the West”: namely the fact that it saw the leader of the Soviet revolution as nothing but a “proletarian Genghis Khan, emerging from the depths of Asia to hasten the conquest of Europe,” or better yet, a “Marxist Mohammed.” In reality, like Robespierre and others before him, Lenin was merely an embodiment of the “petit-bourgeois fantasy” that had lit the fires which had swept across Europe over the last three centuries. 1 While there are certainly still individuals who portray the 1917 revolution as the savage manifestation of an atemporal Asian despotism, vaguely betrayed by Lenin’s visage, it must be noted that such orientalism has, fortunately, died away. Consider two recent biographies of Lenin, one by Lars Lih and the other by Robert Service. 2 Regardless of the importance we accord to these respective works, and the fact that their interpretations of Lenin’s trajectory and thought are opposed on nearly every point, they nonetheless share one thesis, or premise: that Lenin was essentially a man of European education, whose gaze was entirely turned towards the West, as the source of the great emancipatory ideas and the setting of the socialist revolution to come. In this perspective, the revolution of 1917 appears as the apotheosis of a historical sequence initiated at the end of the 18th century, as the last major attempt to realize the ideals, or illusions, of Western modernity – and/or inversely, to betray those ideals and lead them astray. 

Although this approach is in many respects commendable, there is another side to the story. In these studies, the extra-European world almost completely disappears: the red revolution is presented as basically a white revolution. Of course, we like to emphasize that at the onset of the 1920s, Lenin pivots back towards Asia, towards the “revolution in the East,” as witnessed in his interventions in debate with the Indian communist MN Roy, at the Second Comintern Congress (July–August 1920). But this is seen as only a belated detour, under the whip of necessity, a consequence of the loss of hope in an imminent upheaval in Western Europe, following the failure of the German and Hungarian revolutions as well as the Polish-Soviet War. Lenin’s interest in national liberation struggles, then, would boil down to that of a stranger looking to a world he had hitherto ignored. As for the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku (September 1920) – which, it should be pointed out, MN Roy refused to participate in, mocking the gathering as “Zinoviev’s circus” and describing it as a “picturesque cavalcade to the gates of the mysterious Orient” – the aura it enjoys today is largely tied to the fact that we imagine it, not without a tinge of romanticism, as a foundational, original act, the product of a sudden realization among Bolshevik leaders that the future of the revolution would perhaps be decided elsewhere: not in the West, but in the East. 3

This representation is chimerical, to the extent that Lenin never believed that the (anticolonial) revolution in the East could be a substitute, even a temporary one, for the socialist revolution in Europe, since both were linked together via a thousand threads. More to the point, it simply cannot be argued that Lenin waited until the last years of his life to devote significant attention to capitalist development and revolutionary movements in the non-European world. The most obvious pieces of evidence, but far from the only proof, are the multiple texts over the course of the First World War on the “national question,” in Europe, the colonies, and the semi-colonies. Further, Lenin was perfectly aware of the specific place Russia occupied in this arrangement, as occupying an intermediary space not only due to its geographical situation, but also crucially because of its status – to use the title of a book by Viatcheslav Morozov – as a subaltern empire in a Eurocentric world. 4 This is in no way to deny that Lenin’s thinking underwent an evolution on this subject, that is unquestionable: but this evolution, far from being an abrupt break, took the form of a long and progressive decentering of the revolutionary process. This decentering has roots in his first writings on the development of capitalism in Russia, which are marked, as CLR James has rightly emphasized – and it is not by chance that a non-European, in this case Trinidadian, Marxist theorist pointed this fact out – by the urgent necessity to translate Marxism into a context different from Western Europe, without for all that becoming wholly unrecognizable. 5

Through the two studies that follow, distinct while also engaged in an implicit and at times dissonant dialogue, we will begin to explore the itinerary of this decentering, which could even be called a decolonization of the revolution. The first will cover Lenin’s reflections on the question of national self-determination and struggles for independence prior to 1917, the second will deal with how he attempted to approach the imperative to decolonize the Russian Empire after 1917, starting with the case of the Muslim colonies of Central Asia.

Struggles for National Liberation, or the Impure Revolution

In July 1903, in the wake of the second congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), Lenin published an article in Iskra, “The National Question in Our Programme.” At stake in this article is the defense of the right of nations to self-determination – the right for political separation in relation to a state, not to be confused with the (claimed) right to national-cultural autonomy within a state, which Lenin vigorously opposed. Recognized by the party since its foundation in 1898, the right to self-determination became an object of controversy with the Polish Marxists (chiefly Rosa Luxemburg) who, in open conflict with the Polish Socialist Party, voiced opposition – in the name of internationalism – to what they saw as the reactionary and obsolete project of restoring Polish independence. While Lenin reaffirmed the need to not violate the “free expression of the national will,” in no sense was he a champion of separation: “our unreserved recognition of the struggle for freedom of self-determination does not in any way commit us to supporting every demand for national self-determination.” 6 Support is only given “conditionally,” as demands for national independence should be rigorously subordinated to the “the class interests of the militant proletariat,” which are defined at an intrinsically international level. 

Until very recently, Lenin writes, the struggle for the independence of Poland, that “bulwark of civilization against tsarism,” was closely linked to the struggle for (bourgeois) democracy in Europe, and Marx and Engels both correctly supported it. But that “age,” Lenin adds, has passed, and the Polish ruling classes have become allies of the national oppressors: “The times are past when a bourgeois revolution could create a free Poland: today the renascence of Poland is possible only through a social revolution,” which requires, more than ever, “the very closest unity of the proletariat of all nationalities.” But what holds for the “Polish question” is “wholly applicable to every other national question.” To ignore these changes and “continue advocating the old solutions given by Marxism, would mean being true to the letter but not to the spirit of the teaching, would mean repeating the old conclusions by rote, without being able to use the Marxist method of research to analyse the new political situation.” 7 The need – which Lenin loves to insist upon – for an ongoing renewal of Marxist theory and practice, its translation into new geo-historical conjunctures, here takes the form not of a further recognition, but rather a denial of the emancipatory potential of national liberation struggles in the present. His approach to the problem of national self-determination in this period is adequately summed up in a text published several months later, “On the Manifesto of the Armenian Social-Democrats”: 

We on our part concern ourselves with the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than with self-determination of peoples or nations. Thus, the general, basic and ever-binding programme of Russian Social-Democracy must consist only in the demand for equal rights for all citizens (irrespective of sex, language, creed, race, nationality, etc.) and for their right to free democratic self-determination. 8

It must be acknowledged that in these texts Lenin advances a narrow conception of the “national question,” to which he accords only a circumstantial interest and as a result overlooks its nuances. A first shift takes place during his exile in Poland beginning in 1912, first in Kraków and then the small village of Poronin, on the margins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After having prepared a resolution reiterating the RSDLP’s recognition of the right to self-determination, in early 1914 Lenin wrote an essay on the “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination.” which constitutes a real breakthrough in Bolshevik theorizing of national liberation struggles. Lenin’s principal adversary remains Rosa Luxemburg; he sees Russian “opportunists” of every stripe as merely parroting her arguments, such as those laid out in her “The National Question and Autonomy” (1908-1909). 9

In Lenin’s view, Luxemburg’s main error resides in her inability to draw a “distinction between two periods of capitalism”: the first, revolutionary phase is the disintegration of feudalism and the formation of a bourgeois society and state, when “national movements” arise which involve “all classes of the population”; the second is the period when, the state being fully developed and generally “nationally uniform,” the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and proletariat sharpens. In Western Europe and the United States, “the epoch of bourgeois-democratic revolutions … embraces a fairly definite period, approximately between 1789 and 1871” – from the French Revolution, an authentic national struggle, to the Paris Commune. The national question was “settled long ago”; it is thus completely reasonable that it does not appear in “the programmes of West-European socialists.” 10 But we should not conclude, as Lenin accuses Luxemburg of arguing, that this question is henceforth obsolete for the entire world. If, due to the fact that modern states are of a “common capitalist nature,” it is useful to draw “comparisons” between countries, it must be done “in a sensible way,” without any unwarranted transpositions: “In Eastern Europe and Asia the period of bourgeois-democratic revolutions did not begin until 1905. The revolutions in Russia, Persia, Turkey and China, the Balkan wars – such is the chain of world events of our period in our ‘Orient.’” 11

In rejecting the “the demand for the independence of Poland,” Luxemburg does not bother to investigate the “historical stage” the Russian Empire is currently “passing through,” or “the specific features of the national question in this country,” among which is the fact that Russia is “a state with a single national center – Grand Russia” (in the ethno-national sense), where “subject peoples” constitute the majority of the population. Living in the border regions, these peoples endure an “oppression … much stronger here than in the neighboring states,” not only to the West but also the East, in Asia, where “we see the beginning of a phase of bourgeois revolutions and national movements [Muslims in particular] which are spreading to some of the kindred nationalities within the borders of Russia.” Lenin introduces in this text the distinction – which would be called to serve a crucial role as the mechanism of translation for class struggle at the level of inter-national relations – between oppressed nations and oppressor nations. On either side of this division, “nationalism” could not have the same meaning or functions. In strongly condemning Polish bourgeois nationalism, Luxemburg neglected the no less widespread and even more formidable nationalism of the Great Russian oppressors, and thus she remained blind to the fact that “the bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression.” 12

Lenin then refers to an example that he will routinely mobilize in his subsequent interventions on the national question from Marx and Engels’s writings in the 1860s on Ireland under English rule; after all, as Engels says directly, “Il n’y a qu’un pas [it is only one step] from Ireland to Russia.” 13 Initially, Marx judged that only the English working class movement, within “the oppressor nation,” could help free Ireland from the yoke that held it down. But he quickly understood that such liberation, which is also a condition of possibility of the self-emancipation of the proletariat, could not happen without the “national movement of the oppressed nation,” without the “relations” between the English and Irish revolutionary movements. Lenin is able to reflect ironically on his contemporaries who, in discovering that Marx advocated for the separation of Ireland, would have not fail to reproach him for “forgetting about the class struggle.” Lenin no longer calls for a break with the “old solutions given by Marxism” on the subject of national self-determination. Rather, he stresses that Marx and Engels’s theses on the national question retain an “immense practical importance”; they serve as a remedy against the “nationalist prejudices” that arise as soon as one considers “‘one’s own nation’ as a model nation (or, we would add, one possessing the exclusive privilege of forming a state).” 14

“The Right to Nations of Self-Determination” constitutes a powerful critique of the Eurocentrism prevailing in the approach to the national question among Luxemburg and her disciples. It nonetheless remains the case that Lenin’s own arguments rest upon a chronotopic, stagist logic, in which Europe continues to play a normative role: a logic through which the different “periods” can be projected onto the present-day world map. It’s true that Lenin takes care to clarify that “the two periods are not walled off from each other,” and that “they are connected by numerous transitional links.” 15 But by relying on a schema of parallel, and partially independent, development of nations, he still does not really consider the fact that the spatial coexistence of distinct times, their non-contemporaneity within the same world, cannot but produce a whole series of interferences. The paradox, at least from a (retrospective) postcolonial viewpoint, continues to be precisely that this historicism is what renders it possible for Lenin to grasp the real differences, irreducible to a mere “time lag,” and to recognize the necessary, synchronic multiplicity of forms of struggle. 

Lenin’s intensive study of imperialism following the outbreak of World War I will prompt a second leap forward. For Karl Radek and Luxemburg – his allies on the Zimmerwald left, internationalists opposed to any kind of support for the war effort – imperialist rule definitively demonstrates that “capital has outgrown the framework of national states; that it is impossible to turn the clock of history back to the obsolete ideal of national states.” 16 This is the ultimate proof that the right of nations to self-determination” has become “‘impracticable’” and “‘illusory.’” 17 Several months after the publication of the “Junius Pamphlet,” alias of Luxemburg, Lenin submits it to critique by taking the opposite stance to the argument in said text that “there can be no more national wars,” and that “every war, even if it starts as a national war, is transformed into an imperialist war and affects the interests of one of the imperialist powers or coalitions.” 18 Having immersed himself over the two preceding years in an impassioned reading of Hegel’s Logic, Lenin affirms that if the Marxist dialectic teaches us that every phenomena can “transform into its opposite,” and thus a national war can (and not necessarily) in fact transform into an imperialist war, then the inverse is also true (Lenin says: “and vice versa”). Moreover, national wars against imperialism “waged by colonial, and semi-colonial countries” are not only “possible but inevitable”; even in Europe, “national wars must not be regarded as impossible.” They must ultimately be considered as fundamentally “progressive and revolutionary,” although their individual success depends on a multiplicity of factors beyond the particular context. 

Luxemburg is not the sole target of Lenin’s criticisms: there are also those theorists who, under the guise of internationalism, display an “indifference” towards the national question. This indifference becomes “chauvinism when members of ‘Great’ European nations, i.e., nations which oppress a mass of small and colonial peoples, declare with a learned air that ‘there can be no more national wars!’” 19 To assert that imperialism now exerts its grip over the entire globe by transgressing all established territorial limits should not lead us to deny, but rather underscore the acuity of “the question of the frontiers of a state that is founded on national oppression.” 20 The struggle against chauvinism within the imperialist countries is a primary task at a moment when a section of the working class in each “oppressor nation” has become (economically, politically, ideologically) “partners” of the bourgeoisie “in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.” 21 This is why the proletariat must openly “demand the freedom of political separation for the colonies and for the nations oppressed by ‘their own’ nation.” 22 This is especially true for Russia, which Lenin often depicts – borrowing a popular expression – as a vast “prison of the peoples”: “It would be unseemly for us, representatives of a dominant nation in the far east of Europe and a goodly part of Asia, to forget the immense significance of the national question.” 23

Of course, Lenin does not forget that socialism has no other goal besides “abolishing the present division of mankind into small states and all national particularisms”; put otherwise, to work towards their full and complete “merger” through a dynamic of “concentration” and “centralization.” But just as the abolition of classes will be preceded by a “transition period,” the dictatorship of the proletariat,” so the abolition of nations presupposes the freedom of the oppressed to separate from their oppressors, whether or not it is translated into action. As Engels already underscored in an 1882 letter to Kautsky: “the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind upon any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing.” 24 And Lenin adds in a premonitory manner: on the one hand, carrying out the revolution does not mean that the proletariat will “become holy” or render it immune from all forms of chauvinism; on the other, “the hatred – and perfectly legitimate hatred – of an oppressed nation for its oppressor will last for a while.” 25 The one principle which is adequate to the demands of internationalism is what he calls, in an apparent contradiction, “concentration along non-imperialist lines.” 26 By grasping the meaning and deep-seated implications of this decentered centralism, and the well-nigh insoluble dilemmas it inevitably raises, would allow us to re-examine Lenin’s attitude, strategy, but also doubts when faced with the imperative of decolonizing the Russian Empire during the initial years of the revolution, abstaining from any sort of intentional process or apologetic vision. 

In his wartime writings, Lenin maintains the spatio-temporal framework in which nations evolved, thus producing a tripartite division between: the advanced capitalist countries of Europe, where the national question belongs to the past; the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (Austria, the Balkans, Russia), where it bears on the present; the semi-colonies (China, Persia, Turkey) and the colonies of Asia and Africa, where the national question largely belongs to the future. 27 But now he is aware, more than ever, of the basic interweaving of times, and that these differences are the very product of the uneven development under imperialism, which has ineluctably altered the fate of the entire world. Socialist revolution and national liberation struggle are by no means “independent.” This is why they must be thought together, in their close connection, according to an genuine dialectic of the national and the international. It is necessary, Lenin says, to “link the revolutionary struggle for socialism with a revolutionary programme on the national question,” and more broadly to “combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary programme and tactics on all democratic demands.” 28 Well before 1917, Lenin advances a multipolar and combinatory conception of what he would soon call the “world revolution,” irreducible to any sort of diffusionism:

The social revolution can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic and revolutionary movements, including the national liberation movement, in the undeveloped, backward and oppressed nations. 29

Lenin positions himself against those who tend to downplay this heterogeneity by establishing an impermeable border between Europe, which is heading towards a purely socialist revolution, and the extra-European colonies and semi-colonies: “owing to the crisis of imperialism, the flames of national revolt have flared up both in the colonies and in Europe” – in Eastern Europe, but not only there, as evidenced by the 1916 Irish rebellion. Given these conditions, it is pointless to promote, as Bukharin was urging, “Bolshevism on a West-European scale.” 30 In other words, this refers to a desire to protect the proletariat’s struggle against the bourgeoisie from any contamination by foreign bodies, first and foremost nationalism. But in the matter of revolution, impurity is not the exception, but the rule: 

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. – to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism,” and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism,” and that will be a social revolution! … Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is. 31

There cannot be a revolution without acknowledging the pressing need (“objective truth”) for “a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle.” While Lenin never questions the vanguard role of the “advanced proletariat” and remains convinced, for better or worse, that if the working class does not come to power in one or more countries, national liberation struggles – “powerless as an independent factor” – will be doomed to be crushed by imperialism sooner or later, he nonetheless posits, inversely and dialectically, that peripheral, national wars have the capacity to sow the seeds of a revolutionary contagion amongst the imperialist powers: “The dialectics of history are such that small nations … play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene.” 32

The ultimate aim remains the same: the full-fledged unity of the proletariat of different nations. But this can only be achieved if we account for the present “division” of the working classes in the oppressed and oppressor nations, and consequently of the fact that revolutionary “propaganda must not be the same for both.” 33 This non-identity is not merely strategic, but means “that some will approach in one way, others in another way the same goal (the merger of nations) from different starting-points.” 34 In other words, if the passage to socialism is “inevitable,” it is no less inevitable that this transition will take heterogeneous “forms,” partially unforeseeable, which vary from one country to another, one nation to another: 

All nations will arrive at socialism – this is inevitable, but all will do so in not exactly the same way, each will contribute something of its own to some form of democracy, to some variety of the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the varying rate of socialist transformations in the different aspects of social life. There is nothing more primitive from the viewpoint of theory, or more ridiculous from that of practice, than to paint, “in the name of historical materialism,” this aspect of the future in a monotonous grey. 35

There is no shortage of “disciples” of Lenin who promptly ignored this lesson and painted a colorless picture of revolution, which would follow the same trajectory in all places, save for a time lag or two. But it is clear that on the eve of the 1917 revolution, Lenin had already broken with every linear-historicist schema of this type. The figure whose Marxist career had begun with a patient and uncompromising critique of the thesis, defended by the populists (Narodniki) that there was a specific Russian road to socialism, now argued for the irreducible plurality of processes and paths leading to revolution. But the difference between these positions is crucial: while the populists had made this other path into the only viable response to what they judged as the failure of capitalism to take root Russia, Lenin conceived, in a methodological inversion, such revolutionary polymorphism both as the consequence of capitalist modernization which had reached its “latest stage,” imperialism, and as the condition of its abolition.

After Empire? Lenin and the Muslims of Russia

On November 20, 1917, in the aftermath of Bolsheviks’ seizure of power, Lenin sent out an appeal, co-signed by Stalin, “To All Muslim Workers of Russia and the Orient,” in order to rally them to the revolution in progress: 

Muslims of Russia, Tartars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kyrgyz and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Turks and Tartars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and mountain dwellers of the Caucasus, all you whose mosques and places of worship have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled on by the tsars and oppressors of Russia! From now on your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are being declared free and inviolable. Arrange your national life freely and without hindrance. This is your right. Know your rights, just as the rights of all the peoples of Russia, are protected by the might of the Revolution and by its organs, by the Councils of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies. 36

The relations between Soviet power and the Muslim populations of the (ex-)Russian Empire would prove to be more tumultuous than this appeal to a free (revolutionary) union would lead us to believe. 37 But it does show a profound desire on Lenin’s part to enact a radical break with the oppressive policies towards national and religious minorities that had marked the whole history of tsarism. The opening gesture of this will is Lenin’s order to return the Uthman Quran, one of the oldest copies of the sacred text, to the Muslims of Russia. Lenin then played a significant role in the rocky process of creating the first Muslim Soviet republics, particularly during the Bashkir crisis of 1919–1920. 38 But Lenin was above all interested in the case of Russian Turkestan (Central Asia), conquered in the second half of the 19th century by tsarist armies and subjected to colonial exploitation in the strict sense: one encountered the development of monoculture farming (specifically cotton), a spatial cleavage between indigenous towns-villages, on the one side, and the colonizers on the other (the number of the latter rose considerably after the completion of the railroad connecting Moscow to Tashkent in 1906) and a stark opposition between the two. Whereas Russian, Ukrainian, (ethnic) German, and Jewish peoples were divided along national lines across the rest of Russia, here they comprised a single group of white settlers set against the Muslims. Lenin became increasingly aware that the challenge of decolonizing the Russian Empire needed to be confronted in Turkestan more than anywhere else.

On April 22, 1918, Lenin and Stalin relayed a message of greetings, “To the Tashkent Congress of Soviets of the Turkestan Territory,” assuring its members of the Council of People’s Commissars’ support for the “autonomy for your territory on Soviet principles,” and enjoining them to “cover the whole territory with a network of Soviets,” acting in concert with “the Soviets already in existence.” 39 On April 30, the Turkestan Socialist Federative Republic is declared. But the intensification of the civil war in the region soon provoked a near-complete breakdown in communications with Moscow, and until the autumn of 1919, Turkestan communists were left to their own devices. In the wake of the victory over the White armies, the urgent necessity for Soviet power was to revive industrial production. In this context, “Turkestan” was above all a synonym for the supply of cotton. As Lenin says in a 1920 speech: “Everybody knows that the textile industry is at a complete standstill because today we have no cotton – it has to be imported, owing to the fact that Western Europe, too, is suffering from an acute shortage of raw materials. Our one source of supply is Turkestan.” 40

Lenin is not unaware, however, of the complaints raised about the abuses committed during the civil war by local Russian communists, stilled imbued with a colonial mentality, against native Muslims, who have been brutally robbed of their lands and victims of other types of harassment “in the name of class struggle.” These complaints would be brought up again by a delegate from Turkestan, Tashpolad Narbutabekov, at the First Congress of the Peoples of the East at Baku in September 1920: “So that what has happened in Turkestan shall not be repeated in other parts of the Muslim world … we say: Remove your counter-revolutionaries – remove your alien elements who spread national discord, remove your colonizers who are now working behind the mask of Communism!” 41 In October 1919, a commission (the Turkkomissia), headed by Mikhail Frunze, is sent to Turkestan with the orders to correct errors in the implementation of the policy on nationalities, and encourage the participation of the local Muslim population in economic and political issues, all while fortifying Soviet power in the region. The following month, Lenin addresses a letter, “To the Communists of Turkestan,” which indicated the vital, exemplary role he attributed to this endeavor: 

It is no exaggeration to say that the establishment of proper relations with the peoples of Turkestan is now of immense, epochal importance for the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. 

The attitude of the Soviet Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic to the weak and hitherto oppressed nations is of very practical significance for the whole of Asia and for all the colonies of the world, for thousands and millions of people. 

I earnestly urge you to devote the closest attention to this question, to exert every effort to set an effective example of comradely relations with the peoples of Turkestan, to demonstrate to them by your actions that we are sincere in our desire to wipe out all traces of Great-Russian imperialism and wage an implacable struggle against world imperialism. 42

In Lenin’s view, the revolutionary process in Central Asia could serve as a model of inspiration, and importation, for national liberation movements on the international terrain, in particular in the majority-Muslim areas of the East. It was to be a laboratory for the essential combination of the socialist revolution and anticolonial struggles, a space in which the experimental conditions for a fusion of the proletariat of the oppressor nations and the exploited classes of the oppressed nations were already assembled. But we must be careful not to overestimate the importance Lenin accords at this stage to expanding the revolutionary process to the eastern peripheries of Russia. Witness his response, sent via telegram in mid-December 1919, to three members of the Turkkomissia (Shalva Eliava, Jānis Rudzutaks, and Valerian Kuybyshev) who had requested extra reinforcements for the commission: 

Your demands for personnel are excessive. It is absurd, or worse than absurd, when you imagine that Turkestan is more important than the center and the Ukraine. You will not get any more. You must manage with what you have, and not set yourselves unlimited plans, but be modest. 43

But this rebuff is at least in part due to Lenin’s already firmly-held belief that in matters concerning the Sovietization of Central Asia, it is necessary to proceed with caution. Despite its commitment to fight the harsh manifestations of Great-Russian chauvinism in the region, the Turkkomissia does not intend to be excessively tolerant of the “natives [indigènes],” taking a dim view in particular of the demands put forth by the Muslim national communists, unruly allies of the regime, especially Turar Ryskulov. Ryskulov sent a letter to Lenin in May 1920, in which he stressed that, despite the revolution, there continued to be confrontations between “two groups” in Turkestan, the colonized Muslims and the Europeans: 

The October revolution in Turkestan should have been accomplished not only under the slogans of the overthrow of the existing bourgeois order, but also of the final destruction of all traces of the legacy of all possible colonialist efforts on the part of Tsarist officialdom and kulaks. 44

Without waiting for the Turkkomissia’s approval, Muslim communists sent a delegation to Moscow to express their grievances. Over the course of these discussions, chaired by Lenin and attended by members of the Turkkomissia who had been urgently recalled, Ryskulov argued for the “significance of Turkestan to Soviet Eastern policy and of the colonial nature of national relations existing there,” and demanded the widest possible autonomy for the republic, its borders still undecided. 45

The Muslim communists’ claims were rejected, with Lenin’s approval, but the latter nonetheless realized he would have to intervene more actively in the affairs of Turkestan. Insisting on the aims of the Turkkomissia, in which he had lost some degree of confidence and whose decisions would henceforth be submitted for the approval of the “center” and other organs of Soviet power in Turkestan, he calls for the elimination of inequalities between the settlers and the natives, by “equalizing land tenure of Russians and newcomers with that of local people.” “The general task,” he adds, should not be “communism, but the overthrow of feudalism.” 46 For Lenin, Turkestan once again served as a focal point in a larger test; as he indicated the following month (July 1920) during debates on the national and colonial questions at the Second Comintern Congress, the recent experience in Central Asia, marked by “tremendous difficulties,” proved the need to carry out a simultaneous adaptation-translation of “communist tactics and policy” into a (post-)colonial context. 47

Lenin became increasingly suspicious of the accusations of nationalism being thrown at Muslim communists, in Turkestan and elsewhere. In the days leading up to the opening of the Congress, he gave a brief reply to a message from Sakhib-Garei Said-Galiev, president of the executive central committee of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. To the heavy-handed, complacent question of of whether it is “right to say that the Communists of the formerly dominant nation, as having a higher level in every respect, should play the part of pedagogues and nurses to the Communists and all other working people of the formerly oppressed nationalities,” Lenin responds: “not ‘pedagogues and nurses,’ but helpers.” Said-Galiev also emphasized in his letter the “two clearly distinct trends (groupings) among the native Communists (Tatars)”: one adhering to “the standpoint of class struggle,” the other having a “shade of petty-bourgeois nationalism” – the author has in mind, without explicitly naming him, Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev and his supporters. Said-Galiev also asks whether it is correct to say that the former should receive the Party’s “full and all-round support,” while the latter should “merely be made use of and simultaneously educated in a spirit of pure internationalism.” With evident incredulity, Lenin’s laconically responds: “please let me have exact, brief, clear information on the ‘two tendencies’” – not a word more. 48 A policy of prudence is doubtless the best way to define Lenin’s approach to the national question in the (ex-)Russian Empire at the onset of the 1920s. 

But Lenin’s most bitter battle in the affairs of Turkestan would be internal to Soviet power. Declared in 1921, it can be understood, in terms of both the cast of characters and the sequence of events, as a sort of dress rehearsal prior to “Lenin’s last struggle” of the following year, against the so-called “autonomization plan” envisioned by Stalin for the Caucasus. 49 The conflict, which revolved around the implementation of the New Economic Policy, pitted Mikhail Tomsky, “exiled” to Turkestan after the trade union controversy of 1920–1921, against Georgii Safarov, head of the Comintern’s “Eastern Department.” The former, relying on Lenin, argued for the immediate introduction of the tax in kind, in accordance with the requirements of the NEP; the latter advocated for establishing committees of poor peasants, distributing amongst these committees kulak lands and territories, and inducing class polarization within the Muslim population. Tomsky’s position quickly became identified with a defense of the the privileges of Russian settlers, as well as other groups. The sympathy Safarov garnered from dispossessed Muslims, due to his unwillingness to yield on the task of expropriating the expropriator colonists, prompted local Soviet authorities to grow progressively more frustrated with him. Outlined in an article published near the end of January 1921, Safarov’s deeply-held convictions were hardly a secret: 

In the first year of Soviet Power, the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination appeared above all as the elimination of the colonial heritage of the former Russian Empire…. First, the infected Russian proletarian masses must be educated, the backward elements at the very least, of an unconscious nationalism which makes them consider non-Russian villages as the foyer of the petit-bourgeoisie, which forces them to apply to these villages the methods of attack deployed against capital…. If we transport as such the Communist Revolution into the backward countries, we would only obtain one result, namely the unity of the exploited masses with the exploiters…. All of our part must be mobilized, morally, in the service of the national liberation of the oppressed. 50

At the beginning of August 1921, Adolph Joffe is sent to Turkestan by the Politburo to mediate the disagreement between Tomsky and Safarov and work towards a compromise which would accommodate the struggle against the exclusion of Muslims from exercising power, but without alienating Russian workers, who formed the bulwark of the “red forces in Turkestan.” 51 At the same time, Lenin delivered two nearly identical letters to Tomsky and Safarov in order to notify them of Joffe’s assigned mission. Lenin makes the case that the “two tendencies can and must be combined,” and specifically asks that “the Muslim poor peasants should be treated with care and prudence, with a number of concessions,” to consolidate the line of wisdom and prudence”; for what is at stake, he reminds them, extends beyond Turkestan, it affects “our ‘world policy’ throughout the East.” 52

Lenin’s neutral stance on the Tomsky-Safarov conflict is only a facade. When sending a letter of Safarov’s to Stalin, the People’s Commissar for Nationalities, Lenin adds in a postscript that Safarov is “completely correct.” Stalin does not share this opinion and replies that “they are both incorrect.” Visibly annoyed by Lenin’s magnanimity towards Safarov, he viciously attacks the latter, accusing his actions of contributing to the “exacerbation of the national dissension,” the destruction of “our party organization in Turkestan,” and “compromising the party in the eyes of the workers.” The cornerstone of the nationalities policy in Muslim regions, Stalin bluntly adds, is the liquidation of “mass nationalist banditism,” embodied by the (anti-Bolshevik) Basmachi movement, which Safarov has done nothing to stop, and although subdued elsewhere, continued to flourish in Turkestan via the ransacking of cotton crops. “The conclusion is clear: Safarov must be removed (he cannot be given independent, management work, for he himself needs management).” Stalin nevertheless informs Lenin that he will await the conclusions of the Joffe investigation before bring this question before the Central Committee of the Party. 53

Joffe’s first dispatch would have devastating effects for Safarov; the Politburo decided to suspend him until further notice. The same day, September 13, Lenin sends a message to Joffe. Suspecting him of being siding with Tomsky, he demanded more details, “Facts, facts, and more facts” on whether Safarov is “ruining” the cotton, on the struggle against the anti-Soviet Muslim rebels, but above all on “the question of protection of native interests against ‘Russian’ (Great-Russian or colonialist) exaggerations.” Who were the “natives … (Safarov’s supporters)”? Would the indigenous Muslims be able to defend themselves “against such a subtle and firm and stubborn man as Tomsky”? Lenin “very much suspect[ed] ‘Tomsky’s line’ … of engaging in Great-Russian chauvinism, or, to put it more correctly, in deviating in that direction.” In an even sharper manner than previously, he underscores the international significance of Soviet policies in Turkestan, and forcefully requests the adoption of a fundamentally anticolonialist course of action: 

It is terribly important for all our Weltpolitik to win the confidence of the natives; to win it over again and again; to prove that we are not imperialists, that we shall not tolerate any deviation in that direction. This is a world-wide question, and that is no exaggeration. There you must be especially strict. It will have an effect on India and the East; it is no joke, it calls for exceptional caution. 54

On October 14, the Politburo convenes again. Tomsky and Safarov are dismissed from their posts and orders are given to reorganize the Turkkomissia and the Party Bureau of Turkestan (Turkburo) around reliable Russian and Muslim elements, to be supervised by Grigori Sokolnikov. At the end of December, Lenin sends, “secretly,” a message to the latter. Continuing to believe that “Safarov is right (partially, at any rate), he asks Sokolnikov to “examine this objectively to prevent any squabble, quarrel or revenge from spoiling the work in Turkestan.” Lenin had just received a letter from Safarov, which indicated his wish to resign from his leadership post for Soviet policy in the East. Lenin replies curtly, but is clearly supportive: “Don’t lose your nerve, this is intolerable and shameful, you are not a 14-year-old miss …. Carry on your work, and don’t give up any of your duties. You must learn to collect the facts, calmly and purposefully, against those who have started this absurd case.” 55

Safarov will not succeed: this case, like others, demonstrates that in the face of stubborn prejudices, Lenin does not possess “omnipotence” across the different centers of Soviet power, all the more so when it involves localized organs thousands of miles from the Kremlin. Perhaps he did not show in the “Safarov affair” and “Eastern questions” more generally the same spirit of sacrifice as in other battles, but we cannot blame Lenin for decisions and actions that he was reluctant to take not only for strategic reasons, but also, more simply, due to his visceral hatred for chauvinism. Moreover, he would retaliate in 1922 with the purge of the Communist Party of Turkestan, whose 1500 members were expelled because of their (orthodox) “religious convictions,” in other words their anti-Muslim attitudes and what we might call their colonial (false) internationalism. No Muslims experienced the same outcome, as for a short period Islam was considered as an oppressed religion, which was protected from measures of anti-religious propaganda. 56

In 1923, on Stalin’s urging, the policy of “indigenization” (korenizatsiia) is officially adopted, aiming to promote, under the auspices of building the USSR, the training of cadres from among national minorities; this is deemed the best method for struggling both against Great-Russian chauvinism and against nationalism(s). Although studies have portrayed this policy to have been the touchstone of Soviet administration on the nationalities question, it has not often been pointed out that the policy only very loosely corresponded to Lenin’s views, who was then on the verge of death. 57 Lenin did not want to reconstruct the empire so much as destroy it, to construct on its ruins a new international(ist) order, with all the risks such a refoundation implied and the errors this enterprise would necessarily engender (and of which Lenin was aware). He did not want to merely integrate minorities into power, but to disintegrate the colonial structure, the condition for a definitive rupture with the (feudal and capitalist) legacy of imperialist logics. Like his stance on the emergence of the bureaucracy, Lenin’s mistake was to believe, until the end, that these logics were nothing but remnants from the past, the particular difficulties in extirpating them notwithstanding. He thus ignored, from the turn of the 1920s, that the seeds of a neo-(Soviet) empire were developing, born from the depths of the counter-revolution itself. Had Lenin lived a little while longer, he certainly would have sought out new weapons against it. 

– Translated by Patrick King

This text first appeared in the French-language publication Revue Période.


1 I cite from the French translation of Malaparte’s work: Curzio Malaparte, Le Bonhomme Lénine (Paris: Grasset, 1932), 11-16.
2 Lars T. Lih, Lenin (Islington: Reaktion Books, 2011); Robert Service, Lenin: A Biography (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
3 M.N. Roy, M.N. Roy’s Memoirs (Bombay/New York: Allied Publishers, 1964), 392.
4 Viatcheslav Morozov, Russia’s Postcolonial Identity: A Subaltern Empire in a Eurocentric World (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).
5 C.L.R. James, “The Americanization of Bolshevism [1944],” in Marxism for Our Times: C. L. R. James on Revolutionary Organization, ed. Martin Glaberman (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi Press, 1999), 16-17.
6 V.I. Lenin, “The National Question in Our Programme,” in Collected Works, vol. 6 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 452-61. Translator’s Note: the phrase “free expression of the national will,” while present in the French version of the text (“la libre expression de la volonté nationale”), is rendered in the English translation as simply “national self-determination.”
7 Ibid., 452, 456, 457, 460.
8 Lenin, “On the Manifesto of the Armenian Social-Democrats,” Collected Works, vol. 6, 327.
9 Rosa Luxemburg, “The National Question,” in The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Horace B. Davis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976).
10 Lenin, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Collected Works, vol. 20 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 401, 406.
11 Ibid., 406.
12 Ibid., 403, 411.
13 Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Marx in London,” October 24, 1869.
14 Lenin, “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 435-42.
15 Ibid., 401.
16 Lenin, “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Collected Works, vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 407.
17 Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (Theses),” Collected Works, vol. 22 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 144.
18 Lenin, “The Junius Pamphlet,” Collected Works, vol. 22, 309.
19 Ibid., 312.
20 Lenin, “Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 147.
21 Lenin, “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,” Collected Works, vol. 23 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 56.
22 Lenin, “Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 148.
23 Lenin, “On the National Pride of the Great Russians,” Collected Works, vol. 21, 102-3.
24 Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Karl Kautsky in Vienna,” September 12, 1882.
25 Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” Collected Works, vol. 22, 353.
26 Lenin, “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 410.
27 Lenin, “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 150-52.
28 Lenin, “The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self Determination,” 408.
29 Lenin, “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,” 60.
30 Lenin, “The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism,” Collected Works, vol. 23, 20.
31 Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” 355-56.
32 Ibid., 357.
33 Lenin, “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,” 56.
34 Lenin, “The Nascent Trend of Imperialist Economism,” 20.
35 Lenin, “A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,” 69-70.
36 V..I. Lenin, “To All Muslims of Russia and the Orient [1917],” cited in Svat Soucek, A History of Inner Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 211.
37 See especially Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire and Revolution, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015); Douglas T. Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender & Power in Stalinist Central Asia, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).
38 See Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917–1923, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1999), 94-98.
39 Lenin, “To the Tashkent Congress of Soviets of the Turkestan Territory, To the Council of People’s Commissars of the Turkestan Territory, For Ibrahimov and Klevleyev,” Collected Works, vol. 36 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 486.
40 Lenin, “Speech Delivered at the Third All-Russia Congress of Textile Workers, April 19, 1920,” Collected Works, vol. 30 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 524.
41 John Riddell, ed., To See the Dawn: Baku, 1920 – First Congress of the Peoples of the East (London: Pathfinder Press, 1993), 107.
42 Lenin, “To the Communists of Turkestan,” Collected Works, vol. 30, 138.
43 Lenin, “Telegram to Sh. Z. Eliava, J.E. Rudzutak, V.V. Kuibyshev,” Collected Works, vol. 44 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), 315.
44 Turar Ryskulov, cited in Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, 109.
45 Ibid., 115.
46 Lenin, “Draft Decision for the Politbureau of the C.C., R.C.P.(B.) On the Tasks of the R.C.P.(B.) in Turkestan,” Collected Works, vol. 42 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 198.
47 Lenin, “Report of the Commission on the National and Colonial Questions, July 26,” Collected Works, vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 242-43.
48 Lenin, “Letter to S.G. Said-Galiev,” Collected Works, vol. 36, 541.
49 See Moshe Lewin, Lenin’s Last Struggle, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968).
50 Georgi Safarov, “L’Évolution de la question nationale,” Bulletin communiste 2, no. 4 (January 27, 1921): 60-62. See also Georgi Safarov, Колониальная революция. Oпыт Туркестана [The Colonial Revolution: The Case for Turkestan] [1921] (Oxford, Society for Central Asian Studies, 1985).
51 Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 100.
52 Lenin, “Letter to M.P. Tomsky, August 7, 1921,” Collected Works, vol. 45 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), 246.
53 Stalin, “From the Archives,” ed. Nikolai V. Zlobin, Demokratizatsiya, vol. 3, no. 4 (Summer 1995): 296-297.
54 Lenin, “To A.A. Joffe, September 13, 1921,” Collected Works, vol. 45, 297-98.
55 Lenin, “To G.Y. Sokolnikov, December 22, 1921Collected Works, vol. 45, 417; Lenin, “Letter to G.I. Safarov, December 24, 1921,” Collected Works, vol. 45, 418.
56 Dave Crouch, “The Bolsheviks and Islam,” International Socialism 110 (April 2006); Alexander G. Park, Bolshevism in Turkestan, 1917–1927 (New York, Columbia University Press, 1957), 209.
57 See in particular Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nation and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

Author of the article

holds a doctorate in political philosophy (Université de Paris Diderot and Università degli Studia di Bologna) and is a researcher at Les Afriques dans le Monde (CNRS, Sciences Po Bordeaux). He was previously a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Frantz Fanon: De l'anticolonialisme à la critique postcoloniale (2011) and L'Amérique de John Locke: Expansion coloniale de la philosophie européenne (2014).