1917 and the Colonial Revolution

Against the Current, No. 194, May/June 2018

Peter Solenberger

THE 1917 REVOLUTION swept across Russia from city to city, town to town, and village to village. It didn’t stop at the borders of the Czarist Empire. Its fire, sparks and light spread to neighboring countries and around the world.

As explained in articles in these pages, the 1917 Revolution was multiple revolutions. Democrats against monarchy. Workers against capitalists. Peasants against landowners. Oppressed nationalities against empire. Soldiers against senseless slaughter. Women against patriarchy. These came together to overthrow the czar and then to overthrow capitalism.

The conditions that led to the Russian Revolution also existed around the world, in varying combinations and to varying degrees, which accounted for the rapid spread of its ideas and example.

From 1918 to 1923 four revolutions broke out in Germany, ending World War I, and threatening to end capitalism. The Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and the Italian Biennio Rosso of 1919-20 showed the potential for spreading the revolution to the rest of Europe. Had these revolutions succeeded, the Soviet Union might have gotten the help it needed to avert bureaucratization and to advance from workers’ power to socialism.

The wave of struggle spread also east to the colonies and semi-colonies. The anti-colonial struggles were mostly led by nationalists, not communists. Many of the leaders were anti-Bolshevik, sometimes virulently so. But the Russian Revolution helped break the mystique of imperialist invincibility and inspire rebellion.

Egypt revolted against British rule in 1919 and won independence in 1922. The Turkish National Movement led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk began a four-year war of liberation in 1919, overthrew the Ottoman dynasty, blocked the attempt of Britain, France and Italy to dominate postwar Turkey, and established a nationalist government in 1923.

As Yassamine Mather’s article Iran: The Impact of October in ATC #191 explains, the Russian Revolution inspired the Soviet Republic of Gilan, which lasted from June 1920 until September 1921.

At the national level, the British engineered a coup against the crumbling Qajar dynasty and sponsored Reza Pahlavi to restore order. But their protégé, riding a wave of nationalism and encouraged by the Soviet Union, asserted Iran’s independence, making himself shah in the process.

Nationalist revolution swept China. In 1912 the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China. By 1916 China had been carved up among rival warlords subordinate to the imperialist great powers. The Kuomintang, reestablished in 1919 and led by Sun Yat-sen, formed an army to oust the warlords, resist foreign domination, and unite China. The Soviet Union gave essential aid.

The earlier 1905 Russian Revolution had also inspired upsurges and revolutions. What was different about 1917 is that the revolution was led by a party whose goal was world revolution. The Bolshevik Party and the government it created were committed to spreading the revolution, not just to the advanced capitalist countries but also to the colonies and semi-colonies.

The Bolsheviks’ Marxist Heritage

When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, the industrial revolution was only a few generations past and imperialism was a few generations in the future. Empires existed, but not yet imperialism in the sense Marxists came to understand it in the early 20th century: monopoly capitalism, the merger of bank and industrial capital to form finance capital, a financial oligarchy, the export of capital as distinct from commodities, the economic partition of the globe, and the sometimes cold, sometime hot conflict among the imperialist powers for “their” piece of the action.

Marx and Engels knew that capitalism had developed the productive forces and created a world market, of which foreign-dominated China and the colonies of British India and the Dutch East Indies were important parts.

Their focus, however, was the rise of capitalism and the formation of nation-states, not the dissolution of multinational states and the breakup of empires. Marx and Engels knew that, on a world scale, capitalist development was necessary to create the economic preconditions for socialism, as well as create the working class as capitalism’s gravedigger. In that sense, capitalist development had to precede socialist revolution.

But capitalism led to uneven and combined development. The more economically advanced countries interacted with the less economically advanced. The combined crises of traditional society and of capitalism could be more intense than either alone, leading to unexpected jumps and inversions in revolutionary development.

Events and study led Marx and Engels to such unexpected conclusions as that the development of capitalism might lead India to liberate itself from Britain before the British working class took power and liberated it; that Irish independence might have to precede workers’ revolution in Britain, because otherwise the relative privilege and anti-Irish racism of English workers might prevent them from acting; and that, with workers’ power elsewhere, the Russian mir (peasant commune) might be the vehicle by which Russia developed from pre-capitalism to socialism without passing through fully developed capitalism.

Against the Current will be taking up some of these questions throughout this year, on the occasion of the bicentennial of Marx’s birth in 1818.

Russian Revolution

An essential aspect of the 1917 Revolu­tion was the revolt of the oppressed nationalities against czarist oppression. The Provisional Government created by the February Revolution deferred dealing with the relationship between Russia and its internal colonies until a Constituent Assembly. As with other major questions, including the war, land, bread and the eight-hour day, this meant delaying indefinitely.

The Bolsheviks had discussed the national question thoroughly in the years between 1905 and 1917. Their position was a combination of “Workers of the world, unite!” and the right of nations to self-determination. They knew that the chauvinism of oppressor nations and the natural distrust of oppressed nations were obstacles to unity.

The way forward was freedom to secede. The oppressed nation might choose to stay or to leave. Affirming the right to choose would help overcome both chauvinism and distrust and open the way to freely chosen unity in the future, if not the present.

The “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia,” adopted by the Soviet government eight days after the October Revolution, proclaimed 1) the equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, 2) the right of self-determination, including secession and formation of a separate state, 3) abolition of all national and religious privileges and restrictions, and 4) free development of nationalities and ethnographical groups.

Finland, the Baltic countries, Poland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine and Transcaucasia quickly seceded. This created a politically complicated situation, since those leading the secessions were mostly counterrevolutionaries opposed to the October Revolution and allied with the imperialist powers trying to strangle it, and those favoring unity were revolutionaries.

With civil war raging from 1918 to 1920, assessing competing demands of class and nation wasn’t easy. If the Red Army advanced into a territory, would the workers and peasants there rise in revolution against the capitalist government, or would they fight for the government against the Red Army?

The Soviet government made mistakes, most spectacularly the decision to send the Red Army into Poland in summer 1920. In the Bolshevik leadership, Lenin favored the offensive, arguing that Polish workers would rise up to support it.

Trotsky and Radek warned that they might not, in which case the position of the Red Army would be militarily and politically untenable. The Polish workers didn’t rise, and the Red Army was forced to retreat.

When the fighting ended, Finland, the Baltic countries and Poland were outside the Soviet Union, and Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were inside.

Third (Communist) International

The Bolsheviks and other revolutionary socialists launched the Third International (Comintern) in March 1919. The Founding Congress was brief and mainly adopted a Manifesto.

The Second Congress, held in July 1920, occurred at the high point of revolutionary enthusiasm. The Civil War had mostly been won, the Red Army was sweeping into Poland, and it seemed the revolution might spread to Western Europe. For the first time ever, the Congress included a substantial number of delegates representing colonial and semi-colonial countries.

The Congress adopted two major documents on the national and colonial question, “Theses on the National and Colonial Question” by Lenin and the “Supplemental Theses on the National and Colonial Question” by M.N. Roy of India. Points 4 and 5 of Lenin’s theses, as amended and adopted, lay out the core argument:

“4. From the principles set forth it follows that the whole policy of the Communist International on the national and colonial question must be based mainly on the union of the workers and toiling masses of all nations and countries in the common revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the landlords and of the bourgeoisie. For only such a union can secure victory over capitalism, without which the destruction of national oppression and inequality is impossible.

5. The international political situation has now placed the dictatorship of the proletariat on the order of the day, and all the events in international politics are concentrated inevitably around one single central point, around the struggle of the international bourgeoisie against the Russian Soviet Republic. The latter rallies around itself, on the one hand, the soviet movements of the vanguard of the working class in every country and, on the other hand, all the national liberation movements of the colonies and the oppressed nationalities who have been convinced by bitter experience that for them there is no salvation outside an alliance with the revolutionary proletariat and the victory of soviet power over world imperialism.

Point 11 adds: “…The Communist International should accompany the revolutionary movement in the colonies and the backward countries for part of the way, should even make an alliance with it; it may not, however, fuse with it, but must unconditionally maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, be it only in embryo.”

There were many ambiguities in this policy, which soon emerged. Defending the gains of the revolution and spreading the revolution were both necessary. Might they conflict? Supporting national liberation and preparing for socialist revolution were both necessary. Might they conflict? And so on.

From Offense to Defense

The optimism of summer 1920 faded. The Polish workers did not rise. The Red Army was forced to withdraw. The March (1921) Action in Germany was defeated. Rescue from the west seemed delayed indefinitely.

The situation in Russia was extremely difficult. World War I and the Civil War had devastated the country. With the Civil War over, peasants began to resent the confiscation of their crops to feed the cities. Industry couldn’t produce consumer goods to trade with them.

The Comintern and the Bolsheviks shifted from offense to defense. For the Comintern, this meant a turn to the United Front to defend the interests of workers and to build the revolutionary movement for future struggles.

The Communist Parties proposed to unions, political parties and other workers’ organizations to join together, despite their political differences, to fight the fast-coming attacks. “March separately, strike together!”

For the Soviet government the shift meant replacing war communism, a regime of requisition, with the New Economic Policy (NEP), the renewed use of markets. The goal was to boost agricultural production. Peasants were required to pay taxes in kind. Beyond that they were free to sell their products, encouraging them to expand production.

Internationally, the shift meant less emphasis on revolutionary proclamations and more on diplomatic maneuvers to play the imperialist powers off against each other, particularly Germany against Britain.

Proclamations continued, and maneuvers had always been tried, but the emphasis changed. Treaties with other governments, imperialist or not, usually required promising not to undermine or try to overthrow the other party. The Soviet government made such promises to Germany, Britain, Turkey, Iran, China and other countries.

The treaties bound the Soviet government, not the Comintern, and Soviet embassies continued their covert activities. But the revolutionary ebb meant that revolutionary war was no longer feasible.

The shift exposed all the ambiguities in the Comintern policy on the national and colonial question. What should the Comintern and the local Communist Party do when the noncommunist leadership of the national liberation movement turns out to be not so savory? What should the Russian government do when the anti-imperialist ally decides to crush the Communists?

These questions didn’t matter much if the advance of the revolution would leave the ally behind in a year or so. It mattered a great deal if the reckoning might be delayed for years.

“Socialism in One Country”

The Civil War had fostered a culture of command in the Party and government bureaucracy. The defection of the other socialist parties encouraged what Lenin called “Communist conceit,” which in turn led to covering up mistakes. By 1922 bureaucratic habits were flourishing in the Soviet system.

The only really effective counter would have been workers’ democracy, which could have checked the bureaucratism until the transition to socialism removed its basis. But the Russian working class was too exhausted to exercise this check.

Lenin proposed removing Stalin as General Secretary and instituting a Workers and Peasants Inspection to keep the bureaucracy off balance and buy time for the German revolution to come to the rescue. His plan was ingenious but not enough.

When the October 1923 German revolution failed, the fate of the Russian Revolution was sealed. The Left Opposition and the Joint Opposition, both led by Leon Trotsky, resisted but could not win against the consolidating Stalinist bureaucracy.

The ideology of the bureaucracy was “socialism in one country.” In opposition to previous Marxist and Bolshevik thought, Stalin and his cohorts argued that Russia could become socialist without workers’ revolution elsewhere.

In this schema the role of the Comintern and the Communist Parties outside the Soviet Union was to protect the Soviet Union from imperialist intervention. In 1921 the Bolsheviks had been unfairly accused of subordinating world revolution to Soviet diplomacy. That now became the reality.

Soviet policy under Stalinism zig-zagged from accommodation with the imperialist powers in the mid-1920s, to (mostly verbal) confrontation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, to accommodation again during the Popular Front period from the mid-1930s through the immediate aftermath of World War II (with a brief pirouette during the Hitler-Stalin Pact), to imperialist-imposed confrontation during the early Cold War, to the “peaceful coexistence” of mutually assured destruction (MAD) of the mid-1950s through 1991.

When the Stalinist bureaucracy wanted to increase pressure on the United States and other imperialist powers — or when its anti-imperialist allies forced its hand — it increased its support for anti-imperialist revolutions. When it wanted to ease the pressure, it withdrew its support.

Where anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist revolutions succeeded, as in Yugoslavia, China, Indochina, Korea and Cuba, the Soviet bureaucracy backed subordinate bureaucracies, which ruled from day one. Workers and peasants were politically disenfranchised, even where the bureaucracies had a human face.

Iran Revisited

The general analysis can be concretized by examining the history of particular countries. Iran is a good case study. As Yassamine Mather explains in her article “Iran: The Impact of October,” the Social-Democratic Party of Iran (SDPI) was formed in 1905 by Iranian immigrants who worked in the Baku oilfields. The party relocated from Azerbaijan to Iran and became involved in the 1905-1911 Constitutional Revolution.

The revolution imposed a constitution on the shah but failed to establish a republic. The future White Russian (anti-Bolshevik) general Vladimir Platonovitch Liakhov led the Persian Cossack Brigade, the only effective military unit of the Qajar Dynasty. When the Cossack Brigade proved insufficient, Czar Nicholas II sent troops to occupy Tabriz in Northern Iran. The troops stayed until the 1917 Revolution forced their withdrawal.

The Russian move was largely to counter Britain, which was expanding its influence in southern Iran. Oil had been discovered there, and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP) was founded in 1908 to extract it.

The SDPI declared its Iranian branches closed in 1910. As in Russia following the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, revolutionaries had to go underground to survive.

In 1912 the Adalat (Justice) Party was established. It was led by Ahmad Sultanzadeh, who had joined the Bolshevik Party as a student in St. Petersburg. Adalat renamed itself the Communist Party of Iran (CPI) in 1920 and joined the Communist International. Sultanzadeh was a delegate to the Second and Third Comintern Congresses and was elected to the Comintern’s Executive Committee.

The Gilan Soviet was set up in northern Iran in June 1920, at the height of the Comintern’s revolutionary enthusiasm. Sultanzadeh, on the left of the CPI and the Comintern, wanted to push as far as possible.

The Gilan Soviet faced major problems from the beginning. It was established by an alliance between Adalat and the Jangali (Forest) movement, led by Mirza Kuchak Khan. The alliance was unstable. Kuchak Khan was a nationalist, not a socialist. He wanted to remove the Qajar Dynasty and reduce British influence, not foment a workers’ or even an agrarian revolution.

The Gilan Soviet had insufficient support in the rest of Iran to maintain itself. It depended on the presence of Soviet soldiers and sailors in the Caspian Sea port of Anzali. The Soviet government had occupied Anzali to retrieve Russian vessels and arms taken there by the White Russian General Anton Denikin and to prevent the Whites from using Anzali as a base.

With the revolutionary retreat of 1921, the Bolsheviks faced a dilemma. They needed treaties with the British government to reopen trade and with the Iranian government to counter British influence in the region. Continuing the czarist occupation of northern Iran was impossible, diplomatically, militarily and politically. Yet pulling out would doom the Gilan Soviet.

The Soviet government agreed to withdraw its troops and signed treaties with the British and Iranian governments. The Comintern and the CPI continued their clandestine work to build trade unions, promote democracy, and foment revolution. The Iranian government severely repressed the Communists. The Soviet government aided the CPI as it could, but did not invade.


The 1917 Revolution inspired revolutions and revolutionary activity in countries adjacent to Russia and around the world. It created the Third International, which welcomed parties from the colonies and semicolonies as comrades in the self-emancipation of the working class and all oppressed people.

For its first five years the Communist International remained true to its goal of world revolution, but it succumbed to Stalinism along with the Soviet Union. Still, the existence of the Soviet Union contributed to extraordinary achievements, including the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, anti-capitalist revolutions in China, Indochina, Korea and Cuba, and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolutions in India, Indonesia, Africa and Latin America.

Whatever their limitations, the 1917 Revo­lution and the Communist International made the revolutionary movement truly international. That legacy remains.

May-June 2018, ATC 194