Baku: The First Congress of the Peoples of the East

By Christina Tello

In 1920, the first anti-colonial congress in history was held in the port city of Baku, Azerbaijan. It was convened by the Bolsheviks after the triumph of the socialist revolution in Russia. The event brought together hundreds of communists and revolutionaries from different parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The delegates, who came from the former European colonies, denounced in their own language the rapacious actions of the imperialist states against the peoples of the colonial world. At the same time, they created the first socialist programme for national liberation movements. The Congress still offers invaluable experiences for today’s struggle of the working class in the neo-colonial world against imperialism and capitalism.

The end of World War I and the division of the world

With the end of the war and the demise of the great European empires, the colonies were a potential battle prize for the Allies. As Germany was stripped of its continental and overseas possessions — according to Article 119 of Versailles — Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe would become hotly contested as annexations were negotiated between Britain, France, Italy and Japan. This was reason enough to make US President Woodrow Wilson believe that peace depended entirely on colonial policy and its evolution in the sharing out by the great imperialist powers. In the absence of a world order and with the formation of a new one at Versailles, the United States shaped the new imperialist policy on oppressed peoples called the “Mandate System”.

The proposal drafted by the US and Britain in January 1919 contained the legal and operational basis for the administration of colonial territories under the supervision of the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations). Imperialist partition, disguised as “trusteeship”, was to remain in the hands of the Allies until such time as they deemed the occupied nation mature enough to establish a formal, independent, sovereign state. For obvious reasons, the “maturation” condition was accompanied by a heavy racist charge against peoples who were not considered “civilised” by the European powers.

The imperialists justified a different approach for the tutelage of the Eastern European peoples and the states created after the dissolution of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. The similarity of values, capitalist development and Christianity were enough to give them the right to self-determination and to create a series of new states to serve as a cordon sanitaire against revolutionary Russia. On the other side, however, were the peoples ‘overseas’, in Asia and Africa, who by the racist standards of European imperialism were not ready for the right of self-determination. They had to be educated, civilised, Christianised and guided by the hand of the European coloniser. It was thus evident that the Mandate policy flatly rejected the self-determination of the colonially dominated peoples and that the Mandate system was not intended to help them but to keep them submissive to European imperialism.

By the end of the war, in places like Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, peasants and workers were being exploited by capitalism in the great enterprises of resource extraction for European big industry. Global statistics of the time reflect that almost all agricultural and mining production came directly from these places, where slavery, genocide and land theft were the legal norm of colonial administration. One need only recall the crimes of Leopold II in the Congo, of the Japanese Empire in China and Korea, of the British Crown in India or of Poincaré’s France in Indochina and Algeria.

In schools and workplaces, local language and practices were censored and persecuted by the imposition of European education and language. Oral and written traditions and religious manifestations were swept away by Christian evangelisation. Sentences against “idleness” were punished with the whip and the amputation of hands. National literature, nationalist groups and the independent press were banned by the colonial administrations, often with the collaboration of the local landowners and bourgeoisie themselves, who were beneficiaries of the colonial apparatus. The excesses and atrocities committed against the peoples dominated by the colony are innumerable, as are the victims.

For all these reasons, the Mandate System ended up being, once again, the manifestation of imperial dominance over the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The Mandate System was intimately linked to the European vision of civilisational standards. Standards that were born in capitalist Europe and evolved with the impact of Wilsonian politics and the League of Nations. It was merely a new incarnation of imperialism as a historical process. A new evolution of its policy in the face of the new dynamics presented by the end of the war, the rise of the United States as an imperialist power, the Russian Revolution and the bankruptcy of the old colonial system.

The Communist International and the Baku Congress

With the triumph of the socialist revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks set themselves the task of promoting a world revolution, for it was evident that the phenomenon of revolution had already spread to the most important urban centres of Europe. The aim was undoubtedly the emancipation of the workers of the world, but it was also an effort to keep alive the revolutionary regime which was threatened by the isolation and international pressures of the capitalists against the young Soviet republic. For this reason, in March 1919, the Bolsheviks founded the Communist International, an organisation that brought together revolutionaries and parties from different parts of the world, committed to the socialist struggle — This organisation made it possible to connect with a new layer of revolutionaries in the European colonies and ex-colonies, where Lenin and Trotsky were keen to discuss the dynamics of capitalism and the programme to be offered for the liberation of the workers and peasants there. Asserting that

“We have up to now devoted too little attention to agitation in Asia. However, the international situation is evidently shaping in such a way that the road to Paris and London lies via the towns of Afghanistan, the Punjab and Bengal.”

The first effort to build a programme for the peoples oppressed by imperialism came in July 1920 at the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. The colonial question was high on the agenda during the discussion sessions between delegates from India, Persia, Turkey, China, Indochina and even Mexico. The theses most widely discussed during the congress discussions were those of Lenin and the Iranian communist, Avetis Sultan-Sade; for a time Avetis was one of the leading Marxist figures in the revolutionary movement in the Middle East. Lenin and Avetis developed the main theses of the congress, affirming the need to make a distinction between oppressor nations and oppressed nations, since over 70% of the population of the earth was directly controlled by and dependent on the great centers of British and French imperialism.

At the same time, they concluded that the construction of socialism in the colonial world must necessarily follow national liberation from the mandates and administered governments. The slogan usually used to support these national struggles was known as support for the “bourgeois-democratic movement”. However, in Persia, Turkey, Afghanistan, as in the oppressed nations represented at the congress, they lacked a national bourgeoisie to ally themselves with, since they were functionaries of the colonial apparatuses and did not show solidarity for the peasants and workers against the Mandate. Therefore, the slogan was substituted for the support of the “national-revolutionary” movement and with it was affirmed that even the workers of a backward country, and independently, could fight and achieve socialism before the developed capitalist countries with developed democratic institutions. The slogan pointed out that the communists of the colonial world would only support the bourgeois national liberation movement in the colonies if the latter’s representatives did not prevent Marxists from educating and organising the peasant masses and pushing for an armed struggle and socialist demands that go beyond democratic demands.

The theses of Avetis and Lenin and the collective conclusions of the delegations present at this congress marked the first steps of the anti-colonial struggle of the 20th century. It can fairly be said that these first slogans and political discussions on the character of workers’ revolution and socialism in the colonial world were adapted to the particular condition in which the proletariat and peasantry of those places lived and offered useful experiences to the so-called “Eastern communists” in order to make manifest a programme sufficiently attuned to the national liberation movements.

The Second Congress of the Communist International at the end of its work convened a special Congress in Baku, Azerbaijan, in September of the same year to deal with the situation of the international revolutionary movement in the colonies after the chaos of the First World War, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and Britain’s savage encroachment on its former territories. Its delegates came from the former tsarist colonies struggling to become Soviet republics, the Arab world, Turkey, Persia, India, the Balkans, Korea, Algeria, South Africa, China and Japan. The journey to Baku was a dangerous one for the communist delegations, as the British government tried every possible means to prevent their arrival in the capital. Such was the extent of the dangers that two British warships stationed off the coast of the Black Sea blocked the departure of a Turkish delegation from the ports of Istanbul. At the same time, a British aircraft in the Caspian Sea bombed a ship on which Persian delegates were travelling to the port city; 2 delegates were killed and several wounded in the attack.

However, even with many difficulties and many miles to go, the congress was held successfully, with more than 1891 delegates from all corners of the world attending. Among them were delegates from the Middle East from nationalist and communist factions, from the Turkish delegation Mustafa Sup’hi and Enver Pasha, from the Persian delegation Haidar Khan and from the Afghan delegation Ali Agazade and Mahmmud Azim, all of them important revolutionaries. In the Record of the Nationality Composition of the Congress of delegations from the Middle East, 235 Turks, 192 Persians and Farsi, 157 Armenians, 11 Khazars, 8 Kurds, 3 Arabs and 9 Afghans participated. Of these delegates, 55 were women. This was in addition to the participation of large groups of delegates from peoples oppressed by the Russian empire, Chinese, Koreans, Balkans, Indochinese and Indians. The congress spoke in more than 53 languages and dialects.

The minutes of the sessions narrate the great debates that revolved around the new role of Britain and the United States as the greatest imperialist powers in the international order, the liberation of women from the traditional bonds of Islam, the Armenian genocide, the nationalist movement in Persia and Turkey, the partition of Palestine by the Anglo-Zionist bourgeois committees and the role of Jihad in Marxist revolutionary doctrine. In the words of Daniela Spenser:

“It was the first time that the peoples of Asia and North Africa were able to express to a sympathetic audience their social ills in their own languages, even though they had to be translated into other languages for the rest of the delegates to understand”.

There were two events during the congress that bore witness to international solidarity among oppressed peoples. One was the formation of a revolutionary peasant government in Ezmeli, Iran, which proclaimed itself sympathetic to the Russian socialist revolution and the Communist International, and the other was the defection of hundreds of Indian imperialist soldiers in Jarasan, Afghanistan, to attend and participate in the congress; their arrival was cheered and applauded in the sessions by the thousands of delegates present.

A curious case was that the term “class struggle” for delegations from the Middle East was translated by the word Jihad (Holy War in the Islamic tradition), a crusade not only against capitalist imperialism but against the colonial apparatus that banned the language and religious practices of oppressed peoples. These assertions were complemented by the use of the old laws of the Prophet Mohammed, such as collective ownership of land, to help delegates from Muslim nations understand Marxism in their own language and traditions. The president of the International, at the time Gregori Zinoviev, expounded these same claims in sympathising with the delegates

“The land which according to the shariat was common property has been seized for themselves by the lackeys of the Teheran government. They deal as they will with this land and impose taxes and dues upon you as they see fit.”

From these discussions we find political appeals by the Bolsheviks to the delegations that refer to this understanding of Marxism in their language and world view:

Workers and peasants of the Near East! If you organise yourselves and set up your own workers’ and peasants’ government, if you arm yourselves, uniting with the Russian workers’ and peasants’ army, you will beat the British, French and American capitalists, get rid of your oppressors and find freedom, you will be able to create a free world republic of the working people, and then use the riches of your native land in your own interests and those of the rest of working mankind, which will be glad to take them in exchange for the products you need, and will joyfully come to your aid. We want to talk about all this with you at your congress.”

Finally, all the sessions and debates are condensed in the Congress’s minutes, entitled “Manifesto of the Congress of the Peoples of the East”. The document sets out the denunciations of the colonial governments, the analysis of the correlation of forces between the proletariat and the foreign bourgeoisie, and the militant call for resistance and an armed offensive against British and French imperialism.

People of the East! Many times you have heard the call to holy war from your governments, you marched under the green flag of the Prophet, but all these holy wars were fraudulent, lies, and have only served the interests of your self-serving rulers, and you, peasants and workers after all these wars have remained in slavery and poverty; you won the benefits for others but were left with nothing for yourselves.

Now we are calling you to the first genuine holy war under the red banner of the Communist International.

We are calling you to a holy war for your own benefit, for your freedom, for your life.

England, the last remaining powerful imperialist predator in Europe is spreading its black wings over the eastern Muslim countries, trying to turn the peoples of the East into their slaves, to get its wealth. Slavery, fearful slavery, ruin, oppression and exploitation is what they give the peoples of the East. Save yourselves, peoples of the East!

Arise and fight against this beast of prey!

Go forward as one man in a holy war against the English conquerers!

Stand up, Indian exhausted by hunger and unbearable slave labour!

Stand up, Anatolian peasant crushed by taxes and usury!

Stand up, Persian rayat strangled by the molkdars (landowners)!

Stand up, Armenian toiler driven out into the barren hills!

Stand up, Arabs and Afghans, lost in sandy deserts and cut off by the English from the rest of the world!

Wave high the red banner of holy war…

The theses were unanimously approved, and after the end of the congress, the revolutionary movement in Africa and Asia continued to take shape in the organisation of national liberation movements, in the creation of communist parties and even the seizure of power in some places close to revolutionary Russia. The theses and the revolutionaries who participated in this first anti-colonial experience were a key part of the development of events that had their impact on the first half of the 20th century.

Due to Lenin’s death, Stalin’s rise to power and the abandonment of the Communist International in favour of Soviet foreign policy, the Baku Congress has gone largely unnoticed in history with minimal references. Today, no serious effort has been made to republish its proceedings or discuss its lessons. However, its legacy is already inscribed in the history of anti-colonial movements for the mid-20th century. After the end of World War II, the echoes of Baku still resonated in the struggle for the liberation of African colonies, socialist revolutions and anti-imperialist movements, and to a lesser extent in historical experiences such as the Bandung Conference, the Arab Socialist Movement and the Non-Aligned Movement. Baku was and will remain an event that left valuable experiences in the neo-colonial world and in the struggle of the oppressed against imperialism.

Marxism and the anti-colonial struggle

These experiences show how Marxism is a universal theory and practice that incorporates the particular characteristics of each society, ethnicity, race, religion and language. The alliance and solidarity of oppressed peoples expressed the political necessity of that period, when the chaos of colonial partition was threatened by well-organised revolutionary forces with deep aspirations for change. The work of the Communist International in developing these cadres showed the possibility of reproducing the socialist experience in the villages and former towns of the colonial world, which for a long time was voiceless until the links and solidarity with the Bolsheviks gave it a place in human history, through the emancipation of peoples.

Today, in the midst of an era of disorder, in which Gaza and its people have been victims of Israeli imperialism and that of its allies, it is important to rescue the experiences of Baku and to show that the struggle for national liberation against imperialism goes hand in hand with the struggle for socialism. We, the workers of the neo-colonial world, victims of the atrocities of capitalism, must show that this struggle goes through the experience of the international workers’ movement, translated into our own language and traditions. Marxism and socialism not only respond to the vision and struggle of the oppressed peoples against imperialism, but the oppressed peoples can also demonstrate new forms and actions that are the product of their own experience and demonstrate Marxism’s capacity to extend its analysis.

From Baku we draw admiration for those peoples who denounced imperialism. Marxism and the struggle for socialism will continue to offer hope to working people even as the crisis in Gaza deepens and an imminent regional war breaks out in the Middle East. The sections of the neo-colonial world that are part of International Socialist Alternative defend this approach, rescue its traditions and offer a programme that vindicates the demands of those revolutionaries more than 100 years ago. Against war and imperialism, international workers’ solidarity!

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