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Lenin’s world. Passage to the Orient / by Luca Cangemi

Lenin’s discourse on the Orient is also the discourse of a new, necessary, relationship between the labour movement in the capitalist countries of the West and the peoples struggling for liberation from the colonial yoke. The Russian Revolution is seen as the bridge between these two realities. The defeat of the labour movement and Marxism in the West now poses enormous problems.

by lucacangemi - Monday 22 January 2024 - 414 letture

Lenin is back, or perhaps he has never left in the century since his death, although in the last thirty years the pulling down of his statues has been a fairly widespread sport. Today, here and there, a few statues are being restored, but above all, quite suddenly (especially for the more distracted), the founding value of the political and, shall we say, epistemological rupture wrought by Vladimir Ilich re-emerges.

If the figure of these convulsive years of ours is the tendency towards the reversal of the (American) re-colonisation of the world, better known under the name of globalisation, and even the waning of western domination over the globe (an outcome that is far from certain but possible), then it is necessary to go back to studying the Leninian initiative that then developed along very tortuous paths well beyond the end of the Short Century (which seems to be pretending to become very long) which is, indisputably, the matrix of these upheavals. It is as if through the Leninist fault a new wave of incandescent historical material burst forth, which cannot be understood unless we go back to the original characteristics of that fracture.

That this was a decisive rupture was immediately clear to the protagonists of this long history. The ’shattering’ and ’constituent’ character of Lenin’s ideas and of the acts of the Soviet government (from the earliest days) on the self-determination of peoples are noted with amazement by practically all the exponents who, from very different positions (sometimes far removed from those of the communists), take up the issue of the emancipation of nations forced by the Europeans to the condition of colonies or semi-colonies.

In Canton, Sun Yat Sen had the theatres closed for three days on the news of Lenin’s death. It is well known that (we are already in 1930) Nehru wrote from an English prison to his daughter Indira Gandhi, indicating as memorable the year of the girl’s birth (1917!) thanks to the work of "a great man", but similar evaluations and attentions can be found in Turkish nationalists, Persian intellectuals even in some Afghan princes who wanted to emancipate themselves from British control. Not to mention, of course, those for whom communist militancy and anti-colonial militancy were immediately identified.

Ho Chi Minh’s words are striking in their simplicity and strength: ’the colonial peoples could not believe that such a man and such a programme existed’. A thousand threads link this overwhelming fascination to the current situation and help explain even surprising aspects of it. After all, it is enough to look at historical studies, which are always among the most sensitive indicators of the present: in the first decade after 1989, the prevailing studies on the October Revolution and the communist movement were studies of teratology, that is, studies on a monstrosity that had deviated from ’normal’ historical evolution and conditioned a substantial part of humanity. In the new millennium, having archived the end of history, an interest in the communist movement as a great global actor proposing alternative ways of modernisation developed among historians of different orientations.

The world is, without any doubt, for Lenin the true scenario of his political action, the necessary dimension of his revolutionary strategy. From this point of view, we can say that he is the first global political leader. Marx clearly glimpsed the tendential unification of the world acted out by capitalism, Lenin takes this dimension as the cornerstone of everyday political practice.

This global political practice holds in tension - proposing, for the first time in world history, to unify them - two aspects: the struggle of the European proletariat against capitalism, and the struggle of the oppressed peoples of the colonies.

Interwoven with this tension, almost like an explanatory thread, is another: that between the national and international dimensions of struggle. Lenin’s world is a world of classes, peoples, nations, and internationalism must always specify itself in its rootedness in specific national conditions (and before that, in the study of them). Cosmopolitanism and abstractly supranational constructions, such as the United States of Europe project, are viewed with a critical if not contemptuous attitude.

The October Revolution in Lenin’s vision finds its historical raison d’être in being at the centre of these tensions. Not only does it occur at the right time, preventing the crisis of the Tsarist Empire from being reabsorbed into the bourgeois framework, but it also occurs in the right place, in a territorial and historical formation that can connect the European workers’ movement, Marxism and the struggles of peoples against imperialism and colonialism.

The break not only politically but first and foremost culturally with dominant European (including socialist) thinking could not have been sharper. In the words of an Indian intellectual, Europe began to be provincialised.

This is why we speak of a decisive epistemological fracture from which any polycentric vision of the world cannot but start. And that is why it must be investigated starting with the name by which these new subjects were called, peoples of the Orient.

What is the Orient?

For the Bolsheviks, the word ’Orient’ designates at least three political dimensions.

1) The Muslim Orient and India.

The Orient refers first and foremost to the vast area stretching from Turkey to India and which, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia, encompasses whole swathes of the population of the former Tsarist empire itself. This enormous quadrant, which was highly diverse and complex, even if it was marked in many places by Islamic cultures (the adjective "Muslim" was often used to define the populations of this region in Bolshevik documents), was at the heart of the dynamics of the civil war and the external intervention of the imperialist powers unleashed against the new Soviet power.

The emphasis here is on the processes of nation-building that developed at the centre of the dissolved Ottoman Empire, Turkey. The young Soviet power plays side by side with Turkish nationalism against the victorious capitalist powers (and interventionist against Soviet Russia), as it does, at one point, with German nationalist sectors after Versailles. But here, the game is much more complex. We need only think of an affair like that of Enver Pasha, which plastically intertwines the struggles presiding over the construction of the Soviet space in the Caucasus and Central Asia with the internal conflicts of the Turkish nationalist elites, in a whirlwind of alliances and confrontations.

In the end, the result was politically ambiguous, on the one hand allowing the stabilisation (far from achieved) of Soviet power over a vast area, but on the other recording the imperviousness of Turkish nationalism to any revolutionary authority, or rather its precocious anti-communism, which would have long-term consequences throughout the twentieth century. Relations with the processes of reorganisation that also ran through the other great historical and cultural continent, Persia, also had different results. India deserves a separate discourse, a cultural space with very specific characteristics compared to the rest of the area, the pearl of the British Empire, where the direct political intervention of Bolshevism was more limited. But the impact of the October Revolution on the diverse world of those fighting for India’s independence was enormous.

The great hostility of Her Majesty’s governments towards Soviet Russia was motivated above all by fear for India. These are fears that extend over time, and literature helps us to identify them. In Italy, the novel by Peter Hopkirk, written in the 1980s, with the significant title Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia, 1984 (literally: Mettre le feu à l’Est: le rêve de Lénine d’un empire en Asie, much more significant than the title of the Italian edition, in which Mettre le feu à l’Est is transformed into a less significant "Avanzando nell’oriente in Fiamme"). Fear of India is the main thread running through the plot. A fear disguised as alarm at the most improbable conspiracies and phantom subversive armies, but in reality based on a political concern for the shocking echo that the Russian Revolution and the making of Lenin had on a large militant and intellectual public in the subcontinent.

2) The Far East and China

Distinct from this near East, in Lenin’s mind there was another East, extreme or distant, equally internal and (much more) external to the space dominated by the tsars.

This space was "thematised" and above all invested by direct political action with a certain delay, due in particular to the particularly harsh events of civil war and foreign intervention in the Russian Far East. But it was in these immense territories that the Leninist discourse on the East was to sow deep roots capable of producing extraordinary and lasting developments in the following decades. In the Far East, Soviet Russia was confronted with the enormous Chinese question and found itself up against a particularly aggressive indigenous imperialism, that of Japan, the first to intervene alongside the White armies and the last to resign itself to defeat (Japanese troops remained in Vladivostok until October 1922). The laborious, bloody but clear-cut victory over the various counter-revolutionary groupings that emerged in 1921 enabled Soviet power to be reorganised over vast territories and the question of Mongolian independence to be resolved. In the meantime, the Comintern tried to build up nuclei which, in the following years, would achieve important results in Indonesia, Korea and Indochina.

Then, very early on, the centrality of the Chinese question came to the fore. The relationship between China, Lenin’s thought and the October Revolution is a political-historical theme, not accidentally rediscovered recently, as complex as it is fundamental. Broadly speaking, but first of all, we can establish the starting point, with the very significant concordance between the polemic of the young Soviet state against the Treaty of Versailles, which Lenin described as an "unworthy peace of violence, theft and profit", on the one hand, and the so-called Chinese movement of 4 May 1919, which is still considered to be the starting point of a new China, on the other. The political figure of the May 4th movement, i.e. the link between China’s cultural and social renewal and its independence and national dignity in the face of the humiliation of the imperialist powers, quickly found a reference in Lenin’s general theses as well as in specific acts of international politics. It is no coincidence that Marxism spread in China in those years, but it was a Chinese Marxism that had already been born "Leninist" and which, from the outset, had in its DNA the centrality of the national question, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, quite unlike what was happening in Europe.

The very founding of the Chinese Communist Party, which was directly linked to the May 4th movement (you only have to look at the biographies of its leaders), followed this path, which was very different from the founding of the socialist movement by splitting it up, as happened in the West. And it was a model that spread throughout Asia (and later Africa), with the notable exception of Japan. These original characteristics largely (but not entirely) explain what was to happen in the years and decades that followed. Above all, they explain two decisive elements: on the one hand, the permeability of the Chinese national movement to Marxism, its connection with Soviet positions (in which they invested massively throughout the 1920s, with a constant presence of political and military advisers) and, on the other hand, the propensity of Chinese communism, in several political phases, to raise the problem of unity with the nationalists, but taking unity as a ground for hegemonic contestation.

3) The global Orient.

The two dimensions of the East we have described merge and expand simultaneously to include territories which, only after Lenin’s death, would gradually be taken over in concrete terms by the articulated initiative of the Comintern and the USSR, but which, even before the revolution, were already within the schema in Lenin’s head and were profoundly shaken by the message coming from Soviet October. This is a global Orient that also includes territories that are not geographically Oriental but are (radically) Oriental in political terms: in addition to the whole of Asia, it extends to Africa and Latin America. Oriente became synonymous with the "colonial question" and anti-imperialism. The link with the current debate on the "Global South" is obvious.

The theme of the uneven development of capitalism, which Lenin studied in depth, already produced, in the years preceding the revolution, a precise conception of the revolutionary process on a world scale, which was profoundly innovative because it was based on differentiated but at the same time articulated dimensions. The social revolution," Lenin wrote from his Swiss exile, "can only take place as an epoch that combines the civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie with a whole series of democratic and revolutionary movements, including national liberation movements, of oppressed nations".

The times and forms of the revolution are radically multiple. Not only was the Second International’s conception of linear and evolutionary history dismantled from top to bottom, but the very legitimacy and centrality of the socialist revolution in Russia (hardly foreseeable at the time these notes were written) was consecrated. Russia could play a fundamental role not only because of its extraordinary geographical and historical situation between Europe and Asia, between East and West, but also because very different forms of development coexisted in the same state (in "Russia there is London but also India", as Trotsky put it).

This intuition, which lies at the root of Bolshevism and which, after complex discussions, united the entire leading group, was to find an extraordinary political development with the foreign policy of the young revolutionary Russia (the denunciation of the secret treaties of the Entente had a great impact, particularly those concerning the planned division of the Eastern lands) and with the foundation of the Third International, which, right from the conditions of admission, sanctioned a very clear position and assigned precise tasks to the communist parties of the colonial countries.

A moment of great theoretical and political discussion took place at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, with a particular commitment from Lenin, who took it upon himself to personally lead the discussion of the theses on the national and colonial question, reflecting the centrality of the problem in the thought of the Bolshevik leader.

The main interlocutor is the Indian communist M.N. Roy, an interesting character who, in a way, anticipates the figure, on which postcolonial studies have reflected, of the diasporic intellectual (his intellectual and political activity took place in very different contexts, from India to Soviet Russia, from Mexico to China). In the discussion of the International, he represented a form of intellectual radicalism which would recur several times in the history of the workers’ movement and in that of its relations with liberation movements, and which, by exaggerating certain ideological traits, risked separating itself from the real movement. From this point of view, the discussion with Roy on the struggle in colonial countries is very similar to Vladimir Ilic’s earlier discussion with Rosa Luxemburg on the national question. The confrontation with M.N. Roy shows us a Lenin who was particularly open to dialogue and concerned with synthesis, anxious to help a leading group of "Eastern" communists to grow patiently, aware that he was on extraordinarily new ground where experimentation was particularly necessary.

Lenin’s most distinctive characteristic, the close unity and even circularity of political theory and practice, finds here one of its highest expressions. The results are historically significant. Two in particular: the definition of the relationship between national liberation movements and communists, and the reconsideration of the relationship between the degree of development and the socialist perspective.

On the first point, the alliance between the national movements and the communist movement is sanctioned as a strategic choice, but without renouncing the merits of the political characteristics of the national liberation movements, with an awareness of the complex relations between the indigenous ruling classes and the imperialist powers. We therefore leave to the revolutionary nuclei of the Eastern countries and to the International itself the responsibility of concrete and differentiated analyses of the realities of the different countries and of the different political subjects, which aim to lead the "Eastern" peoples to their emancipation from the colonial or semi-colonial game. If we look at the complex relations between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, to give just one example (but a very important one), we can see how important this indication has been historically.

On the second point, there was a real epistemological break in the field of socialism: the possibility of alternative ways of changing economic and social forms in relation to those of the advanced capitalist countries was forcefully affirmed, while at the same time calling for the necessary experimentation. The break with the tradition of the Second International, but I would also say with Western thought itself, is very clear.

A tradition at work

The theses on the colonial question approved by the Second Congress of the Comintern were the beginning of a history and a culture which, in infinite contradictions, traversed the whole of the twentieth century, acquiring a centrality in the decades of decolonisation, sinking at the turn of the millennium and seeming to return, in very different forms and in a profoundly modified context, at this stage.

After the great impetus of the 1920 International Congress and the Congress of the Peoples of the Orient in September of the same year, which represented its first concrete application, a cultural project began to take root (which received its first impetus from the Baku decisions), the effects of which were to be profound. This involved the construction of teaching and research institutions, journals and scientific societies, and a strong investment in studies in a wide range of sectors, from archaeology to linguistics.

The protagonists of this political and cultural effort were men like Mikhail Pavlovich (revolutionary pseudonym of Mikhail Lazarovich Vel’tman), a little-known but important protagonist at the Comintern Congress and especially in Baku. Pavlovich was the key figure in the creation and direction of the Institute of Oriental Studies and the influential Soviet Scientific Association for Oriental Studies, the best-known and probably the strongest theoretical representative of an administrative and intellectual cadre ’specialising’ in the Orient, who surprisingly quickly occupied positions of responsibility within the Bolshevik Party, the International, Soviet institutions, the security services and the Red Army.

A roster composed of personalities from all Soviet nationalities, but also of international communist militants, in which meticulous theoretical preparation, political (and also military) experience and specialist knowledge are combined within a unitary framework produced by Leninist elaboration. Particular attention should also be paid to training initiatives and structures aimed at young political cadres in the countries of Eastern Europe, whether they come from Communist parties, or are in the process of being formed, or from national liberation movements. It would take too long to mention the many personalities who attended the Communist Workers’ University of the East in the 1920s, or its branch dedicated to China and named after Sun Yat-sen (which confirms the early and particular attention paid to the Chinese situation), or even much less well-known initiatives such as the ’Lenin’ school in Vladivostok, which was mainly aimed at young Chinese and Koreans. Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh and even Yomo Kenyatta attended these courses.

It would be very interesting (and no small part of an adequate understanding of the 20th century) to trace the close debate that ran through this "Eastern" Leninist culture in its dialectic with events in the international communist movement and with the development of revolutionary struggles first in Asia and then in Africa and Latin America, but this is beyond the scope of this work.

On the other hand, it is important to note how a genuine cultural tradition, a point of view on the world, is structured, with inevitably very varied characteristics, but also with unitary features. Inevitably, a tradition with a strong political impact comes under constant critical scrutiny from many quarters. It seems interesting to us to identify and discuss two critical trends, which are, at least on the surface, substantially opposed.

The first, and widespread, reaction to Lenin’s initiative towards the colonial world was an orientalisation of Bolshevism itself. We could use the Gramscian notion of reciprocal siege here (with a certain degree of licence, of course). Whereas for Lenin the oriental question (in its identification with the question of the emancipation of the peoples of the colonies and semi-colonies) is a means of widening the front of the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, for the enormous ideological operation which tends, from the first days after the October Revolution to the present day, to identify communism as an oriental phenomenon, the aim is to circumscribe its nature within the confines of historical backwardness.

On the other hand, in recent years an opposing critical front has developed, one that speaks of red Orientalism, using - quite creatively - the famous concept used by Edward Said to describe how the European culture of the colonial era (and that of the so-called American Area Studies that are its legitimate heirs) had constructed a concept of the Orient that was functional to its own domination. According to these critics, the systematisation of Leninist thought about the East was exclusively functional to the USSR’s power politics, had abundantly recuperated the lexicon and concepts of Western orientalism and pre-revolutionary Russian orientalism, and had substantially conveyed the idea of a "civilising mission". In true Orientalist style.

This type of reasoning, while raising points that need to be explored in greater depth (in particular, how and in what forms Soviet knowledge of the East inherited Orientalist studies from pre-revolutionary Russia), overlooks certain fundamental passages, in particular the Bolsheviks’ very clear option for the subjectivisation of the peoples of the colonies, and also the radical criticism, emanating directly from Lenin, of any stereotyped and predetermined idea of the development of Oriental societies, of any universalised Western evolutionism. Whichever way you look at it, the tradition of oriental studies that was born with Lenin’s thought and the October Revolution, and which was then enormously articulated when it was appropriated by the concrete revolutionary movements of the 20th century, has an ’internality’ to the complex dynamics of the peoples of the countries that fought colonialism and neo-colonialism, which makes it inaccessible to orientalist knowledge as defined by Said and postcolonial studies. Of course, it is not a question of claiming any kind of ’purity’; the difference is one of location. And it is a radical difference.

Very difficult to tackle organically, in conclusion, is the theme that we have come across at several points in our argument, and which is of such interest that it has even been raised in the dominant debate. When a journal like Limes recounts the intrinsic ties to Russia of the African ruling classes who have thrown France out of the door of the ties born in these formative institutions that we have seen spring up and multiply on the instructions of the distant Baku Congress, when ancient anti-imperialist solidarities produce shattering events like the South African initiative against Israel, when relations between Russia and China once again become central (albeit in very different forms to the past), when Western chancelleries find India’s position on the Ukraine crisis inexplicable, there is no doubt that the political and intellectual tradition we have rebuilt is being called into question.

The history of the development of Russian policy over the last thirty years deserves particular attention. We will limit ourselves here to pointing out the traces. There can be no doubt that the first (and perhaps decisive) break with Yeltsinism, that is, with the Russian Federation’s position as completely subordinate to the West, politically and culturally, is linked to a specific name: Evgenij Maksimovič Primakov. And to his policy, which a hostile but cautious source such as Samuel Huntington defines as "anti-hegemonic".

But who is Evgenij Primakov? He is undoubtedly a typical product of the political and cultural tradition we have just described and, in the last phase of the life of the USSR, he is even its most influential representative. He graduated in oriental studies in 1953, was a correspondent in the Middle East for Radio Moscow and Pravda, and for decades was the protagonist of analysis and initiative on the ’Orient’ in some of the decisive ganglia of the complex Soviet architecture: the research institutes, the Academy of Sciences and, in a sphere that was certainly not secondary, the KGB. Indeed, as head of the Association for Oriental Studies, relaunched in 1979, Primakov is also the formal heir of Mikhail Pavlovich, to whose work he explicitly refers.

With Primakov in the post-Soviet era, first Minister of Foreign Affairs, then President of the Council, the Russian position changed substantially, and if from a symbolic point of view the interruption of the trip to Washington at the announcement of the start of the bombing of Kosovo was striking, it was the "Primakov doctrine", i.e. the project to build a strategic axis with China and India and the attention paid to the role of Iran, which defines the salient features of a new international positioning for Russia as a counterweight to the role of the United States. Once again, a common thread between past and present is evident.

Obviously, we need to be careful and attentive: any superimposition that does not take account of a global situation that has been profoundly transformed by the history of the last century is erroneous and sterile, but at the same time it would be absurd not to see the long-term trends that link the Leninist revolutionary fracture, the anti-colonial struggles of the second half of the twentieth century (powerfully spurred on by the Soviet victory in the Second World War and the Chinese revolution), the resistance of the end of the century and today’s struggle for a multipolar world. The Global South is the heir to the Global East sketched out in the 1920s and to the struggle for decolonisation, and - decisively, because subjectivity counts - it claims this heritage.

Of course, this search for the East also raises questions about the other pole, the West, and requires us to shed light on our part of the world. Lenin’s discourse on the East is also the discourse of a new, necessary relationship between the workers’ movement of the capitalist countries of the West and the peoples struggling to free themselves from the colonial yoke. The Russian revolution, as mentioned above, was seen as the bridge between these two realities. The defeat of the workers’ movement and Marxism in the West, the harsh historical consequences of which are particularly obvious and devastating at this stage, poses enormous problems. We’ll have to talk about it again.

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