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).