THE British writer H.G Wells described it as “a quite wonderful accumulation of white, black, brown, and yellow people, Asiatic costumes and astonishing weapons … a great assembly in which they swore undying hatred of capitalism and British imperialism”.
The event to which he was referring was the First Congress of the Peoples of the East, summoned as a supplement to the second congress of the Third International (Comintern), which had concluded its proceedings in Moscow a few weeks earlier.
The “peoples of the east” assembled in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, 100 years ago this week: the congress got under way on Sept 1, 1920, a day after ceremonial inaugural session jointly hosted by the Baku Soviet and the Azerbaijan Trade Union Congress — punctuated rather too frequently, the minutes suggest, by renditions of The Internationale.
Summons to the congress had been issued less than two months earlier, directed towards “the enslaved popular masses of Persia, Armenia and Turkey”. Those three territories, whose boundaries and fates were being delineated in the confusing aftermath of World War I, were well-represented in Baku, but there were also substantial delegations from Central Asian components of the former tsarist empire, as well as small contingents from India and China, and one from Afghanistan that included Hazaras and Jamshedis.
In speeches and declarations, there are references to delegates from Balochistan. The participants from India, both Hindu and Muslim, mostly hailed from Peshawar, apparently, and included a couple of British spies. M.N. Roy, a prominent presence at the Comintern’s second congress, had boycotted the Baku congregation, dismissing it as “[Grigory] Zinoviev’s circus”, and had instead travelled to Tashkent, where the foundations of the Indian communist movement were laid.
His view was echoed by by H.G. Wells, who referred to the gathering as “an excursion, a pageant”, and added: “As a meeting of Asiatic proletarians it was preposterous.” Even John Reed, who attended as an American delegate — and, according to his French counterpart Alfred Rosmer, inspired mirth at the inaugural session by declaring: “Don’t you know how Baku is pronounced in American? It’s pronounced oil!” — was bitter about the “demagogy and display” he encountered and “the manner in which the native population … had been treated”.
Intriguingly, one of the key themes that emerged at the congress related to how “counter-revolutionary” bureaucrats ostensibly representing the Bolsheviks were conducting themselves in the Russian east by reflecting the racist attitudes of their tsarist predecessors and colluding with the most reprehensible elements in society. A resolution to that effect, albeit signed by only 21 of the around 3,000 delegates, openly critical of the activities of the Cheka secret police, made its way to the central committee of the Communist Party in Moscow and instigated an inquiry.
Lenin was adamant that the autonomy of nationalities and their right to secede must mean what they implied, and was a critic of Great Russian chauvinism. But the first Soviet commissar for nationalities, Stalin had a very different mindset. He prevailed, and all too many of the luminaries at the Baku congress — including Zinoviev, Karl Radek and Bela Kun — came to a sticky end during his dictatorship.
However, despite the considerable extent to which Moscow’s foreign policy changed under Stalin, he cannot primarily be blamed for the lack of follow-up to the First Congress of the Peoples of the East. There was no second congress, partly because one of the key British conditions behind a crucial trade deal the following year between Moscow and London was that Russia must desist from its propaganda in Britain’s colonies and regions of influence, especially India and Afghanistan.
The idea behind the Baku congress was to guide rebellion in the British and French colonies towards communism: it was reasonable to back national liberation movements while recognising their bourgeois character, and never losing sight of the fact that if power passed from the colonial power to the national bourgeoisie, the toilers would continue to be oppressed, and the bulk of profits would still flow to the erstwhile imperialist powers — a prescient warning against 20th-century neocolonialism.
The Baku congress held out the prospect of a global Soviet federation, which seemed less absurd a century ago than it does now, although it could still be construed as a worthy ideal. Intriguingly, most of the delegates were Muslims, including a few ulema, and the anti-imperialist struggle was frequently framed in terms of a holy war — albeit ghazavat rather than jihad.
It may be all too easy to dismiss as a fatuous folly, but many of the debates that raged at the congress — on topics ranging from women’s liberation in Muslim societies to Zionism in Palestine — continue to resonate 100 years later.