Comintern and the Colonial Question: The Second Congress

Already on the eve of the first world war, Lenin in his “Right of Nations to Self-Determination” had laid down the essence of proletarian approach to the national question very clearly. While the bourgeoisie “naturally assumes the leadership at the start of every national movement”, and “always places its national demands in the forefront”, for the proletariat “these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle”. Lenin further explained that “bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support.”[1]

VI Lenin’s contribution to the theory of national liberation movement is too vast a subject to be dealt with here; the above reference is meant to serve only as a pointer. In any case, it is necessary to state that Lenin’s role on this question was based not simply on theoretical studies but also on direct experience of communist work in the extremely backward countries on the eastern flank of Soviet Russia. This will be evident from the materials of the Second All-Russia Congress of the Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East (November 1919), the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku (Sept ember 1920) etc. Take for instance two short quotes. Addressing the delegates to the November 1919 Congress, Lenin said :

    “… You are confronted with a task which has not previously confronted the Communists of the world: relying upon the general theory and practice of communism, you must adapt yourselves to specific conditions such as do not exist in the European countries; you must be able to apply that theory and practice to conditions in which the bulk of the population are peasants, and in which the task is to wage a struggle against medieval survivals and not against capitalism.

    … You will have to base yourselves on the bourgeois nationalism which is awakening, and must awaken, among those peoples, and which has its historical justification. At the same time, you must find your way to the working and exploited masses of every country and tell them in a language they understand that their only hope of emancipation lies in the victory of the international revolution, and that the international proletariat is the only ally of all the hundreds of millions of the working and exploited peoples of the East.”[2]

In the main resolution adopted at the same Congress, we find a highly illuminating paragraph:

    “The Communist Party’s revolutionary work in the East must proceed in two directions : the one stems from the Party’s basic class-revolutionary programme, which enjoins it gradually to create communist parties — sections of the Third Communist International — in the Eastern countries; the other is determined by the political and, of course, historical, social and economic situation of the present moment in the East, which makes it necessary for it to give support for a certain length of time to local national movements aiming at the overthrow of the power of Western-European imperialism, always provided that these movements do not conflict with the world proletariat’s class revolutionary aspiration to overthrow world imperialism …”[3]


1. See Lenin, CW, Vol. 20, pp 409-412

2. See Lenin, CW, Vol. 30, pp 161-162

3. Cited from a Russian Source in Marxism and Asia by Helene Carrere d’-Encausse and Stuart R Schram, op. cit, pp 169-70

Continuing and developing this basic approach into a comprehensive general line, Lenin formulated the celebrated Theses on the National and Colonial Questions. A preliminary draft of the theses[4], circulated one-and-a-half months before the Second Comintern Congress met from July 19, was taken up for discussion in the Commission on National and Colonial Questions (better known as the Colonial Commission) constituted by the Congress. Headed by Lenin, this Commission included representatives of advanced countries like England and France as well as colonial and semi-colonial countries like China, Korea and India (MN Roy). The Commission discussed Lenin’s preliminary draft as well as a set of Supplementary Theses drafted by Roy on Lenin’s request. It accepted the former with a few editorial changes and two minor political changes (see below); whereas Roy’s draft was finalised after major political corrections. In the Congress itself, on Lenin’s recommendation both Lenin’s Theses and Roy’s Supplementary Theses were adopted after a thorough discussion. In Chapter II of our Documents section, (i.e., Text II) we reproduce extracts from (1) Lenin’s Theses and (2) Roy’s Supplementary Theses, both in their final versions adopted by the Congress, along with references to the changes made by the Commission in Roy’s original draft; (3) Roy’s speech in the Colonial Commission and the discussion on it, (4) Report of the Commission placed by Lenin at the Congress, and (5) Roy’s Speech in the Congress defending his Supplementary Thesis and the Italian delegate Serrati’s rejoinder.

A careful, unbiased and composite study of these materials will give us a clear picture of the Leninist theoretical foundation for the initiation of the communist movement in colonial and semi-colonial countries as well as of the much discussed and often sensationalised Lenin-Roy controversy. Before we go over to that, however, we have to address ourselves to a pertinent question : why did Lenin recommend—and the Colonial Commission as well as the Congress accept—the very extraordinary step of having a set of supplementary theses over and above the main theses ? Did this mean some sort of patchup?

In the first place, the great organiser and apostle of inner-party democracy and collectivism that he was, Lenin was glad to accept and internationally project the positive contributions of an Indian revolutionary — the more so at a time when the Comintern was attaching utmost importance to the national liberation movements. This could not be achieved by merging Lenin’s and Roy’s theses into one, because the former provided an overall general guideline while the latter dealt specifically with India and other big Asian nations, thus becoming a supplement to the former in the true sense of the term. This point was made by Lenin himself in his Report of the Colonial Commission (see Text H4) and further clarified several years later by Stalin, who wrote that Roy’s theses were needed

    “In order to single out from the backward colonial countries which have no industrial proletariat such countries as China and India, of which it cannot be said that they have ‘practically no industrial proletariat’. Read the Supplementary Theses, and you will realise that they refer chiefly to China and India. … The fact is that Lenin’s theses had been written and published long before the Second Congress opened, long before and prior to the discussion in the special commission of the Second Congress. And since the discussion in the Congress Commission revealed the necessity for singling out from the backward colonies of the East such countries as China and India, the necessity for the ‘Supplementary’ Theses arose.”[5]

Though eager to let the Comintern benefit from his young comrade’s first-hand knowledge about India, Lenin could not, of course, afford to be liberal where basic theoretical questions were involved. He therefore saw to it that the Colonial Commission made major cuts and alterations in Roy’s original draft so as to bring the “supplementary thesis” into broad conformity with the basic theses. At the same time, he deleted from his own preliminary draft a correct Marxist proposition, viz., “… the more backward the country, the stronger is the hold of small-scale agricultural production, patriarchalism and isolation, which inevitably lend particular strength and tenacity to the deepest of petty-bourgeois prejudices, i.e., to national egoism and national narrow-mindedness.” (Compare Para 12 of the preliminary draft, p 150, CW, Vol. 31, with Para 12 of the adopted theses as given in Text II-1 of the present volume). This deletion was in keeping with Lenin’s own advice, given a few lines further on, that communists in advanced countries should be particularly tactful not to hurt the “survivals of national sentiment” in the oppressed countries. Impressed by Roy’s argument, he also replaced the term “bourgeois-democratic” movement by “national-revolutionary” movement. The two sets of theses thus stand as official Comintern documents to be read together and not separately or in contraposition to one another.

Note : 4. See Lenin, CW; Vol. 31, pp 144-151

5. See “Concerning Questions of the Chinese Revolution” by JV Stalin, Works, Vol. 9, p 238

Now for the political essence of Lenin-Roy debate, which revolved round four main points.

First, the relation between and relative importance of revolutions in advanced and backward countries. While Roy said that the fate of the former depended solely on the latter, Lenin opined that this was “going too far” and took a more balanced view. The same point emerges from Text Hz — see notes 1 and 2 appended there. Roy’s “Asiocentric” view of world revolution had its polar opposite in the “Eurocentric” view of the Italian delegate Serrati and some others, but this is not the place to go into details on this question.

Second, the degree of industrial development and class polarisation attained by less backward countries like India, China etc. According to Roy, 80% of the Indians had become “agricultural labourers” under the impact of British Indian industry[6] which saw a twenty-fold rise in capital investment “during recent times” with a consequent 15% increase in the number of industrial proletariat in India.[7] Today we know that these were gross exaggerations, but Lenin did not have the required figures to question these. In any case, from Lenin’s theses and speeches it does not appear that he attached any importance to these sweeping statements; rather his references to the predominantly peasant population and “pre-capitalist relations” in colonies seem to indicate the very opposite. It was only later, when Roy’s views developed further into the “decolonisation theory”, that a polemic started on this question.

Third, the relation between national liberation movement led by the bourgeoisie and the spontaneously developing workers’ and peasants’ struggles; and the correct communist approach to them. It is here that Roy made the most valuable contribution — which was, however, carried to the extreme and thus became his weakest and most harmful proposition. Let us explain.

In Text II-4, we hear Lenin report that some comrade or comrades in the Colonial Commission “irrefutably proved” the “rapprochement between the bourgeoisie of the exploiting countries and that of the colonies … [directed] against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes”. On this basis, reported Lenin, it was decided that the distinction between the reformist and revolutionary bourgeoisie must be grasped, that communists should “combat” the former and support the latter only, and that in order to express the whole thing more scientifically, the generally correct term “bourgeois-democratic” in Lenin’s draft theses should be substituted by the more specific “national revolutionary” (who were to be supported by communists). Now from all accounts it appears that the most forceful voice behind these important changes was that of MN Roy. Also he correctly drew attention, in his draft theses and before the Commission as well as at the Congress itself, to the utmost revolutionary significance of the rising class struggle of workers and peasants. But he stretched his ideas too far — just as he did while emphasising the importance of revolutions in colonies and other backward countries. As we have seen earlier, the upsurge in workers’ and peasants’ struggles in the immediate post-war years was often based on economic or class demands but at the same time they were greatly under the impact of the general anti-British nationalist mood championed most prominently by the Congress. At that juncture it was correct and necessary to expose the betrayal-prone class character of the Congress leadership and to grasp the rudimentary class independence or class assertion of workers and peasants as the main field of communist activity, but certainly it was going against reality to fancy that “the revolutionary movement [of workers and peasants — Ed.] has nothing in common with the national liberation movement”, as Roy said in the Colonial Commission. He had put forward the same concept in his draft theses which was crossed out in the final version (see notes 3, 4 and 6 to Text II-2), and presented it, though in a modified form, in his speech before the Congress itself (“This mass movement is not controlled by the revolutionary nationalists but is developing independently” — whereas in reality nationalist leaders very often controlled the political- reins of not only general anti-British mass movements but the new workers’ and peasants’ movements too). For Roy the national liberation movement and revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ movements were opposites that excluded each other and, being a new convert to Marxism[8], he zealously supported the latter against the former, taking pride in the fact (according to his Memoirs, p 353) that “The Polish communists of the Luxemburg school used to remark in joke that I was a true communist while Lenin was a nationalist”.

Notes :

6. See Text II-3

7. See Text II-5

8. Roy started studying Marxism in New York in 1917, but became some sort of Marxist or socialist only in 1919. His book on India in Spanish published in 1918 while he was in Mexico, did not contain an iota of Marxism.

Lenin on the other hand was perfectly clear, consistent and precise in his formulations. The stage of revolution in colonies, semi-colonies and dependencies had to be bourgeois democratic, with imperialism and feudalism (or feudal survivals) as targets, the peasantry as the motive force and the national bourgeoisie both as a conditional ally (to the extent the latter, or a section of it, fought against imperialism) and a potential though secondary target (to the extent this bourgeoisie, or a section of it, compromised with imperialism). The whole experience of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia upto February 1917 and his long preoccupation with revolutions in oppressed and backward nations (see our small quotes on p 39) provided the foundation for this line. His emphasis on the need to extend special support to the peasant movement, lend it the most revolutionary character and organise peasants’ and other toilers’ Soviets was badly misinterpreted by many and he had to explain it again and again. Thus in reply to his colleague Chicherin’s criticism against what the latter regarded as Lenin’s undue emphasis on alliance with the national bourgeoisie, Lenin clarified: “I lay greater stress on the alliance with the peasantry (which does not quite mean the bourgeoisie)”[9]. Anyway, we believe no such clarification will be needed for the reader who goes through documents 1 and 4 in Text II and notes Lenin’s stress on the “provisional” nature of communists’ alliance with national liberation movement and on the need to “unconditionally maintain the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is only in an embryonic stage”. Fighting against Roy’s ‘left’ isolationism, Lenin highlighted the enormous potential of liberation movements in colonies, which were objectively situated within the framework of bourgeois democracy, for “rallying the constituent elements of the future proletarian parties” ranged “against the bourgeois democratic trend in their own nation”. For us in India, the profound significance of this proposition becomes all the more evident when we remember that (i) practically all the early leaders and cadres of the communist movement in India came from within the ambit of anti-British struggle, while many of them had a Congress background; and (ii) that the movemental mainstay of communism, the class struggle of workers and peasants, developed in most cases as a part – though a very distinct and foremost part often beyond the control of the Congress organisation — of the freedom movement.

Fourth, the actual level of development of the proletariat and of the communist movement and the relative importance of communist work among the peasantry. Roy over-estimated the political development of the proletariat and wrote in his draft theses: “In most of the colonies there already exist organised socialist or communist parties, in close relation with the mass movement.” Colonial Commission changed this into “… organised revolutionary parties which strive to be in close connection with the working masses.” (emphasis added). This change was in accordance with what Lenin had called in his draft theses, “the need for a determined struggle against attempts to give a communist colouring to bourgeois-democratic liberation trends in the backward countries.”[10] Whereas Roy wrote generally about workers’ and peasants’ struggles with emphasis on the former, Lenin’s characteristic assertion was: “it would be Utopian to believe that proletarian, parties in these backward countries, if indeed they can emerge in them, can pursue communist tactics and a communist policy, without establishing definite relations with the peasant movement and without giving it effective support.” (See Text II-4). As his remark made in about the same period on a different occasion shows, from a study of the features of backwardness in the colonies and semi-colonies Lenin arrived at a very significant “deduction” :

    “adjust both Soviet Institutions and the Communist Party (its membership, special tasks) to the level of the peasant countries of the colonial East. This is the crux of the matter. This needs thinking about and seeking concrete answers.”[11]

As we are painfully aware, it was not MN Roy and his successors in India but Mao Zedong and his colleagues in China who picked up the cue from Lenin, grasping “the crux” and finding out detailed, practical “concrete answers” to the whole gamut of special problems facing revolutions in backward countries. That, however, is a different story.

Notes :

9. See Lenin, CW, Vol. 31, p 555

10. See Lenin, CW, Vol. 31, p 149.

11. See Lenin, “Remarks on the Report of A-Sultan-Zade concerning the prospects of a Social Revolution in the East”; CW, Vol. 42, p 202.