In these final moments of 2017, if we were to go over the events taking place across the globe, it would only be natural for our attention to be caught primarily by the dark forces of state authoritarianism, ethno-nationalism, religious fundamentalism and tribalistic hatred which are rising across continents and cultures. Typical of all this would be the virulently powerful nationalisms embodied by Donald Trump in the United States or Marine Le Pen in France. Or the apparent triumph of brutal dictatorships in Egypt and Syria against their own people. Or, perhaps, the outrages committed by Hindutva-inspired forces in India and the alarming advance of rabidly conservative, violent movements led by clerics in Pakistan.
Clearly, the Francis Fukuyama line of thought, which assumed a final triumph of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism, is dead. It is replaced by a most brutal imagination: the longing for a glorious pre-modern past that probably never existed, but has become a potent political and cultural force.
On the other hand, mercifully, it is also increasingly clear that not all the discontent is going to be expressed in such dark forms.
There is the remarkable rise of popular left-wing leaders like Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters in the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and Jean-Luc Melenchon in France, or the continued relevance of mass left-wing politics in countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Nepal, India and elsewhere. Moreover, there is the open question of the official continuation of forms of state socialism in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba – and the fate of the first two will be no small matter, as they are among the most dynamic economies in world history.
It is in such a context that 2017 was the year of a very important centennial commemoration: that of the 1917 Bolshevik-led ‘October Revolution’, which swept away Tsarist Russia and shook the world to its foundations. In the process, it made international communism a force to be reckoned with for the next seven decades.
Even 100 years on, the 1917 revolution is not without its staunch detractors. It is at least as divisive today as it was back then. Liberal commentators have written about a utopian promise that rapidly turned into an “authoritarian Stalinist nightmare.” Conservative commentators have cited this as proof that it is futile, even harmful, to suggest a significantly different way of doing things in the world. It is argued that neither the economic experiment of state socialism nor the political methods of 20th century communist movements have been able to stand the test of time.
Without a doubt, there is factual and historical merit to these criticisms and denunciations. That which the 1917 revolution unleashed across the world had, by the 1990s, been so spectacularly incapable of achieving its goals that it could not even survive up to the end of the century.
However, I would argue that to close the discussion at that point would be a grave error of historical and political judgment. Moments like 1917 in our collective human experience can be seen as a great crossroads of history: the intersection of multiple possible paths into the future, any of which could be taken. The fact that we eventually end up choosing one particular road should not be taken to mean that it was the only conceivable one. To describe a crossroads by speaking only of the route eventually chosen would be incomplete and misleading. Should this not be so, then, when we consider the impact of such a transformative event as the 1917 revolution and the potential for emancipation that it opened up – not just in Russia but the whole world?
In the Indo-Pak Subcontinent, many discussions of the 1917 revolution fall into the same pitfall – seeing it as an event of the distant past, taking place in a distant land, whose impact was, at best, to export some utopian new ideas to some intellectuals and parties of South Asia. And of course, that the ideals of the 1917 revolution have ‘failed’ or that they are ‘dead’.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The impact of the 1917 revolution on thinkers of the Indian Subcontinent, whether of a Hindu or Muslim background, can only be described as an entirely new epoch. The period after October/November 1917 demands to be seen as a radically new era – not just for Russia, Europe or the world in general, but for colonial India in particular. It provided politics in South Asia with a mighty new set of hopes, aspirations and even vocabulary.
A full examination of what all of this meant for South Asia and its history would be beyond the scope of this article. Moreover, it has been studied and documented with meticulousness and insight by scholars – something far beyond the limited ability of this writer.
I hope, however, to lay out – in very broad terms – some of the context in which Indian thinkers and freedom-fighters, particularly those of a Muslim background, eagerly seized upon the opportunities and promises opened up by the Bolshevik-led revolution in seemingly faraway Russia.
Moreover, to provide anything close to a proper picture of how Indians – particularly Muslims – were inspired by the ‘October Revolution’ is a very massive task. There is so much to speak of that it is only possible, in this space, to offer some snapshots.
To begin, let us note that the Bolsheviks who led the ‘October Revolution’ never saw it as a crucial event in just Russian history. They saw themselves as the first to seize state power in what was the ‘weakest’ link among the Great Powers of that era, Russia. The overall purpose was to spread the revolution across the world – for, it was believed, only that could make it possible to construct the world along new, radically democratic lines: a socialist world republic. By the very people who conceived it, the ‘October Revolution’ had to spread across borders if it was to make any progress in its aims.
Initially, the Bolsheviks in Russia hoped that, inspired by their bold seizure of power, the powerful working-class movements in Central and Western Europe would be encouraged to rise up in a similar manner. In this way, they hoped, that with the advanced industrial and financial resources of the richest part of the world coming under the control of a global revolutionary wave, a Red Europe could start to offer all the assistance it could to the rest of the world – so as to usher in an egalitarian future for all of humanity.
This, however, did not happen. Attempts at a revolutionary seizure of power across Europe either petered out or were crushed by the states that they tried to overthrow. By 1919-20, it was abundantly clear to the Bolsheviks that sitting in expectation of a revolution in the West was fruitless. They then turned to ‘the East’ – primarily the colonised people of Asia. If the core of the global status quo in the West was too tough to break with revolutionary fervour, perhaps the colossus could be attacked at its clay feet: i.e. by encouraging uprisings in its colonies in the East.
And so, in 1920 the Bolsheviks gathered leaders from across the exploited nations of the East, ruled from afar by the capitalist West. Anti-colonial revolutionaries from Indonesia to the Middle East responded to their call. That year, a Congress of the Peoples of the East was organised under Bolshevik auspices in Baku, modern-day Azerbaijan. The brilliant Indian revolutionary M. N. Roy – a rebel hailing from a Brahmin family – was already engaged in debates with Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders about how to free colonial India and elsewhere from the grasp of Western capitalist powers. Indian Muslim revolutionaries rapidly began to move to the forefront of this wave of intellectual and political explosions.
At the Baku Congress, representatives of the colonised East exchanged perspectives with the Bolsheviks on how to organise this massive new revolution across Asia. Far from being a quiet, pensive affair, the Baku Congress was a riotous, fervent gathering of revolutionaries from all over the East. The atmosphere can be best summed up by the speech delivered by Bolshevik leader Zinoviev to the already charged attendees. Having already listed out colonial atrocities in detail across the world, including the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Zinoviev invited the guests to a fiery project indeed:
“Comrades! Brothers! The time has now come when you can set about organising a true people’s holy war against the robbers and oppressors. The Communist International turns today to the peoples of the East and says to them: ‘Brothers, we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against British imperialism!’
[Tumultuous applause, prolonged shouts of ‘Hurrah’. Members of the Congress stand up, brandishing their weapons. The speaker is unable to continue for some time. All the delegates stand up and applaud. Shouts of “We swear it.”]
May this declaration made today be heard in London, in Paris, and in all the cities where the capitalists are still in power. May they heed this solemn oath sworn by the representatives of tens of millions of toilers of the East, that the rule of the British oppressors shall be no more in the East, that the oppression of the toilers of the East by the capitalists shall cease!”
It is important to point out that in colonial India, revolutionaries had already been looking for international backers for uprisings well before the 1917 revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Muslim thinkers such as the Jauhar brothers and others had looked to the beleaguered Ottoman empire, the Afghan kings and so on for help. Jamaluddin Afghani and others had already spoken of pan-Islamic and transnational anti-colonial struggles. Many revolutionaries had been looking to the German empire in hopes of winning support against the British.
The Bolshevik-led revolution, however, coincided with the collapse of the German and Ottoman empires. In their place, a new hope arose: that the revolutionary new state, the Soviet Union, would support the anti-colonial uprisings as part of a global strategy against the Western powers.
The marriage between two kinds of revolutionary thought, pan-Islamism and secular socialist internationalism, was not entirely an easy one. And yet, it was not just spur-of-the-moment excitement that allowed it to happen. Muslim revolutionary figures like Maulana Barkatullah and others had already been engaging with various strands of socialist thought: the idea roughly being that to build a truly ‘Islamic’ society, it was necessary not just to get rid of colonial rule but to re-order social relations. It was not just external oppressors but the gross inequality within our own society which had to be addressed. The chains of traditional backwardness and capitalism, which were keeping workers, women and minorities shackled, had to be broken.
For instance, Maulana Barkatullah was, as early as 1905, engaging with what we might consider socialist thought, from a modern Islamic perspective. He later became a leader in the exodus of Indian revolutionaries to King Amanullah’s Afghanistan, a state that enjoyed good relations with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. There, and further in Soviet-controlled Muslim Central Asia, provisional governments for a future Free India were organised, revolutionary armed groups were mustered and intellectual foundations for insurrection were laid.
One of the most fascinating aspects was the embrace of revolutionary socialist thought by some important figures of the Deoband school of Islamic thought from India. Iconic amongst these figures would be the brilliant Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi – as much a threat to conservative and quiescent Muslim ulema as he was to the colonial British authorities.
His thought and his life’s work are marked by a fiercely independent attitude. Of his interaction with his Bolshevik friends while in the USSR, he says:
“It is not true that I met Comrade Lenin at this time. He was so sick that he would not meet even his closest associates. […] Although I was under the influence of socialism, it was because of my belief in the teachings of Shah Waliullah that I was able to keep my own political beliefs free from other isms.”
In retrospect there are those who would argue that such a synthesis between a ‘hardline’ school of religious thought and the militantly secular outlook of international communism was at best a pipe-dream. Yet, I would argue that the very fact that the synthesis was attempted – by such learned and sharp intellects of Muslim India – is proof of what the Bolshevik-led revolution provided: i.e. an opportunity to have such grand and daring political dreams, and an encouragement to act in the pursuit of difficult projects of human emancipation. In short, we could say that these Indian and Muslim thinkers approached their task with the audacity of the Bolsheviks themselves.
Far from looking backwards to some imagined Islamic past, such figures saw their project as a modern one: aimed at revitalising Muslim societies for a new era. Maulana Barkatullah, typical of this trend, writes:
“[The] time has come for Asiatic nations to understand the noble principles of Russian socialism and to embrace it seriously and enthusiastically[…] They should, without loss of time, send their children to Russian schools to learn modern sciences, noble arts, practical physics…”
In 1920, in Bolshevik-controlled Central Asia – Tashkent to be more precise – the Communist Party of India was formed. The first Secretary of this party was a leader of a Muslim background: Mohammed Shafiq.
Allama Muhammad Iqbal was not immune to this intellectual and political ferment. In Baal-e-Jibreel, he calls for an uprising of the toiling masses, famously calling for every field to be burned down if it could not provide its tillers with a dignified livelihood. In a remarkable poem Lenin – Khuda ke hazoor mein (Lenin, in the presence of God), he daringly tries to reconcile Islamic beliefs with Lenin’s ‘scientific-materialism’, concluding by expressing before the Divine these sentiments:
You are the All Powerful, and The Just, but in Your world;
The fortunes of the labourers, are very bitter/short.
When shall the ship of money-worship drown?
Your world is awaiting the day of returns!
One of the most interesting aspects of all this was the way in which the Indian revolutionaries’ imagination of the Subcontinent’s geography was transformed. The northern and north-western mountains of India (the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush) have been seen as an impregnable rampart, protecting it from external invasion. And yet, this is, arguably an imperial conception of Indian geography – most relevant for a central authority based in the environs of Delhi, be it the Mughals or the British.
In the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, these mountainous regions became not a barrier but a road – a path for Indian revolutionaries to reach Bolshevik-controlled Central Asia and a route for ‘banned’ revolutionary literature to reach India. British colonial intelligence was haunted by the need to police this route. Already in the 1920s, we read of “Pathan” travelers and merchants bringing back not just wares but forbidden revolutionary tracts to the Indian subcontinent, containing the revolutionary gospel of Marxism.
This new geographical imagination of the mountainous crown of India is beautifully expressed by Carolien Stolte in a work titled “Peoples of the East: Revolutionary Internationalism in an Asian Inflection”. The old commercial and cultural ties with the Silk Route of Central Asia and various Muslim conquerors of India were transformed into new ties with the revolution that had taken Muslim Central Asia by storm. In short, in the words of Stolte, “Central Asia had become incorporated into the geo-imaginary of Indian revolutionaries in various ways.”
The British colonial regime was fully alive to the danger it faced from these bands of revolutionary thinkers and activists, whose ideological horizons had expanded in step with their geographical mobility. Even as early as 1921, British agents were seeking to infiltrate not just the newly formed communist groups in northern India, but also the revolutionary networks stretching into Central Asia. British spies like the adventurer and intelligence agent Frederick Marshman Bailey were soon locked in a clandestine war with both the Bolshevik-led USSR and its Indian and Muslim allies.
The wrath of the British Empire came down hard on those who its vast security and intelligence apparatus was able to apprehend. Driven by paranoid over-estimations of the subversive capabilities of the Indian revolutionaries, the Empire resorted to a full spectrum of repression, propaganda, intrigue and outright imprisonment – starting with the Peshawar Conspiracy cases from 1922 onwards.
But this was all futile. Very soon, the ideas of socialism and revolutionary struggle became vital aspects of the already ongoing anti-colonial Indian struggle. Mainstream parties in colonial India, including the Indian National Congress and the All-India Muslim League built mass movements on an entirely transformed political soil. And this soil had been shaped by the aftermath of the 1917 revolution just as much as by British colonialism or religious-communal divisions.
The questions raised by the Bolshevik revolution are fundamental issues of how to organise modern human society: i.e. who produces the wealth and how it is distributed. To divorce politics from these fundamental issues means to push it into the domain of wild reactionary fantasies. This can only provide more space for the brutal worldview of religious fanatics, ethno-nationalists and tribalistic bigots – who we can already see ascendant in global politics today.
To truly evaluate an event like the 1917 Bolshevik-led revolution, we would have to speak of the ocean of possibilities which it opened up, and not just the tragic turn taken by the Bolshevik dream.
In this context, the experience of India’s thinkers and revolutionaries, especially those of a Muslim background, is just one example of the powerful transformative forces which the Bolsheviks set in motion across the world. Nothing would ever be the same again.
It is for good reason that China Mieville in his book October describes the Bolshevik revolutionaries embarking upon their daring seizure of power in these words:
Exhausted, drunk on history, nerves still taut as wires, the delegates to the Second Congress of Soviets stumbled out of Smolny. They stepped out of the finishing school into a new moment of history, a new kind of first day, that of workers’ government, morning in a new city, the capital of a workers’ state.
They walked into the winter under a dim but lightening sky.