The 1922 Comintern Congress of the workers of the Far East underlines the importance of anti-imperialism and the politics of liberation to the revolution, argues Chris Bambery

Alliance of Adversaries: The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East, ed. John Sexton (Haymarket Books 2019), 370pp.

Lenin broke new ground in so many ways. His analysis of imperialism, contained in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, published in 1916, did not just analyse the concentration of economic, financial and military power within a handful of great powers, and how this had brought the world to war in 1914, but had important strategic implications.

In 1917 Lenin saw Russia as being the weak link in the chain of global capitalism. Revolution in Russia would not just impact upon the working classes of Western Europe and North America but it would also encourage the peoples of Asia to rise up against colonialism and foreign occupation. That wasn’t some abstract notion. The 1905 Russian Revolution had helped do that in Korea, Iran and China.

As I have written elsewhere on this website, Lenin saw the new Soviet Union as a link between the two poles of revolution, stretching as it did to the Pacific. That’s why he vigorously fought for national rights in the eastern Soviet Republics. The Bolsheviks had to be seen to apply the right of self-determination in practice.

Another bridge was the Communist International (Comintern), striving as it was to become the first genuinely global revolutionary movement. The first effort to act on this was the September 1920 Congress of the Peoples of the East held in Baku, capital of Soviet Azerbaijan. The American journalist and communist, John Reed, attended and the film Reds features the Congress. It drew some two thousand delegates, mainly from the Muslim countries of the Caucasus. The historian E.H. Carr later wrote accurately that:

‘Muslim beliefs and institutions were treated with veiled respect, and the cause of world revolution narrowed down to specific and more manageable dimensions. The Muslim tradition of jihad, or holy war against the infidel, was harnessed to a modern crusade of oppressed peoples against the imperialist oppressors, with Britain as the main target.’i

But the fight for women’s liberation was not ignored. Among keynote speakers was the Turkish feminist, Naciye Suman. Unlike under Stalin, the hijab was not banned but young female Bolsheviks went to live in Muslim villages where they encouraged young women to stop wearing it.

In January 1922, the Comintern decided to call a Congress of the Toilers of the Far East. This was in response to a number of events. At the close of the Russian Civil War, Soviet power was established in the Far East, while Japanese invaders withdrew from Soviet territory and Outer Mongolia, which became an independent state allied to the Soviet Union.

The Soviet revolution and the East

This meant that Soviet Russia now bordered Japanese occupied Korea and China. There the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang had been formed by Sun Yat-sen to fight for national unity and against imperialist occupation of Shanghai, Hong Kong and other cities. At the same time the Russian Revolution had inspired a number of intellectuals and industrial workers to move towards communism.

The third factor was the November 1921 Washington conference convened by the US and attended by Japan, Britain and France, to sort out where these imperialist powers stood in the Pacific. It agreed to limits on each of their navies and while Japan chaffed at the limits imposed on it, the fact was that it was being treated as a great power.

Zinoviev summed up the Washington conference thus:

‘On 10 December 1921 Washington saw the conclusion of a treaty between four of the most powerful governments of the present day, four of the most oppressive and reactionary imperialist governments: England, France, Japan and America. I think that this alliance, from its very beginning, will become known in history as the Alliance of the Four Bloodsuckers; the alliance of four of the most bloodthirsty imperialist powers which … have concluded between themselves an armistice for the purpose of more successfully oppressing the nations at the expense of whose blood these imperialist robbers have been living for many a year’ (pp.70-1). 

However, the conference also marked the fact that Japan was on a collision course with America, which wanted control of China’s market for itself. It insisted that Britain break its close military alliance with Japan and effectively switch to backing Washington. Even then war was on the horizon.

The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East was originally to be held in Siberia but moved to Moscow. When it convened it brought together Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Mongolian delegates in the main, including from the Kuomintang. As its president Grigori Zinoviev put it at the opening of the Congress:

‘We, not only in words, but in deeds, are trying to become the organisation not merely of the toilers of Europe, but also of the toilers of the entire world. The Communist International is all the time taking a clear account of the fact that the revolution of the toilers can be victorious under the present circumstances only as a world revolution’ (p.45).

Zinoviev was joined by another leading Bolshevik, Georgi Safarov, who had been Lenin’s secretary in Switzerland (he later supported Trotsky against Stalin and died in the Gulag). They were joined by the veteran Japanese socialist and communist, Katayama Sen, who achieved fame at the 1904 Congress of the Second International when he publicly shook hands with the Russian delegate, Plekhanov, to show solidarity in the face of the Russo-Japanese war.

The nascent Japanese communist and trade-union movement faced ferocious repression by a ruling class scared by the success of the Bolsheviks. Korea was occupied by Japan and many leftists were exiled in the Soviet Union where large numbers joined the Red Army but the Korean communists were split and at daggers drawn, literally. The Mongolians faced their own difficulties.

The Chinese revolution

If you will forgive me, what is fascinating in the account of the Congress are the Chinese delegates because, with hindsight, we know the Chinese Revolution was on the rise but would be defeated in 1927 when the Kuomintang turned on its Communist allies and massacred them. Safarov gave a speech at the Congress arguing strongly that the Chinese Communists and the Comintern had to ally with the Kuomintang when it fought imperialism but at the same time stressed that the communists must retain their independence and their stress on economic and social issues:

‘In colonial and semi-colonial countries like China and Korea, which are actually colonies of foreign capital, the Communist International and the Communist Parties are obliged to support the national-democratic movement. In these countries, the Communist Party must [call for] the overthrow of imperialist oppression, and support democratic demands like the nationalisation of the land, self-government, etc. At the same time, however, the Communist Parties must not abandon their Communist programme, just as they must not abstain from organising the working class in trade unions independent of bourgeois influence. Neither must they abstain from organising the working class in an independent Communist Party’ (p.265). 

In addition Safarov stressed an alliance between the Chinese working class and the peasantry arguing: ‘These peasant masses must be won over to the side of the revolution’ (p.23). He also stated: ‘It is necessary that the working class should not isolate itself from the peasant masses’ and that ‘it is necessary that it joins hands with the peasant masses’ (p.266).

The best vehicle for achieving this alliance was the creation of soviets:

‘The idea of soviets, as [the] most suitable form of organisation for the revolutionary struggle of the masses and for the revolutionary control of these masses over the democratic organs of power must be preached. Soviets are the best weapons in the hands of the toilers of every country, whether it has a predominant proletarian population or is a peasant country’ (pp.231–2). 

The contradiction within the Kuomintang, between its quest for national unification and an end to imperialist occupation, as against the open admiration of its leaders for the American model, was raised by Zinoviev. This caused considerable debate at the Congress with a Kuomintang delegate denying anyone looked to America as the future model for China and painting his party in the reddest of red colours.

This approach of Safarov contrasted with the Comintern and Russian line in the mid-1920s when they urged the communists to submerge themselves in the Kuomintang and be ‘foot soldiers’ for it with disastrous results.

Women and the revolutionary struggle

There were few female delegates but a Korean woman and worker spoke, and Zinoviev warmly introduced Huang Bihun as ‘the famous Chinese authoress, the organiser of the women’s movement in China’. Huang was the daughter of a businessman who was married off to a manager in the family firm. However, when he and her father died in short succession, her father-in-law stole her inheritance. She fled, leaving her two young sons, to find work in Britain and America. Huang returned to Shanghai, marrying a younger man in the face of convention, and becoming a comrade of Chen Duxiu, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party. She was also a deputy in Sun Yat-sen’s parliament in Southern China where she campaigned for women’s suffrage and was beaten up by right-wing deputies.

In Moscow, she told the Congress of the ‘terrible oppression’ of Chinese women suffered adding:

‘When the call of Communism reached us in China, we, the oppressed women, received it as a sinking ship greets the sound of the siren of another vessel which is hastening to its rescue … Our task is the same as yours, and our aim is your aim; the destruction of capitalism. Our aim is to create a society in China based on equal rights for all, men and women alike’ (p.120).

Later she told delegates how impressed she was by Soviet Russia and that:

‘The women of the Eastern countries will unite with the Russian women to struggle against the capitalists and imperialists oppressing the women of the Far East, and they will go [forward] hand in hand with the Russian women in the struggle against world capitalism and imperialism’ (p.292).

Tragically she was killed by a Kuomintang war lord in the following year.

This excellent book sheds light on comrades like her and many others, and on a Congress which represented the true nature of Bolshevism, soon to be perverted by Stalinism. The fight for liberation ran through the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet Union. That should never be forgotten and must remain the same for us all today.

i E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, vol. 3, (Penguin books 1966), p.261.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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