The previous articles to the series “How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists?” are as follows –

Part 1 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists?

Part 2 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 2

Part 3 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 3

Part 4 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 4

Part 5 – How the Indian Communists embraced Islamists? Part 5

Part 6 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 6

Part 7 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 7

Part 8 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 8

Part 9 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 9

Part 10 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 10

Part 11 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 11

Part 12 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 12

Part 13 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 13

Part 14 – How The Indian Communists Embraced Islamists? – Part 14


Islamic Communism

When Karl Marx wrote the introduction to A Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in 1843—the year of his marriage to Jenny von Westphalen—he was 25. In this work—unpublished during his lifetime— Marx attempted an examination of religion.

About Christianity, the then-dominant religion of Europe, he said:

The social principles of Christianity declare all the vile acts of the oppressors to be either a just punishment for original sin and other sins or trials which the Lord, in His infinite wisdom, ordains for the redeemed.”

After a quick reference to the situation of religion in Germany, he declares:

“…the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism”. Religion disappoints because it offers man only a heavenly reflection of himself, not his actual reality. He states: “The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make the man.” Because “religion is the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again.” religion is an alter ego created by man. “Man,” he clarifies, “is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. “This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world because they are an inverted world.

Religion,” he continues, “is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point of honour, its enthusiasm, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification.”

                 Lenin with Stalin

Therefore, the struggle against religion is a struggle against a world whose spirit is consumed by religion. But there’s a contradiction because religious suffering is the expression of real suffering and at the same time a protest against suffering.“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Religion, he continues, therefore is the illusory happiness of the people.

To ask them to give up the illusion is to give up the condition that requires illusions. It is asking them, in effect, to change the conditions that addict them to the opium that is religion. “The criticism of religion is, therefore,” he writes, “the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” He argues that religion is like a chain of imaginary flowers man wears. Criticism plucks away those flowers and enables man to throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. “Thus,” Marx concludes, “the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”

But the situation was different in the Soviet Union; Lenin and Stalin together toppled the core of the Marxian thought on religion.

The Russian Orthodox Church had a prominent position in the Czarist government and Russian society. Hence, Lenin’s occupation record with religious matters is more comprehensive than Marx’s and Engels’s. His practical disposition drove him to prefer unambiguous stances on social phenomena over intricate dialectics and peremptory solutions to potential twists and contradictions over a philosophy of self-doubt. In the first place, he held that inferior considerations must not obstruct revolutionary mobilization: Addressing the village poor, Lenin declared that the social democrats advocated freedom of conscience, including the right to proselytization. (1)  He was ready to countenance cooperation with priests in the struggle against despotism. “We socialists must lend this movement our support, carrying the demands of honest and sincere members of the clergy to their conclusion.” The criterion was whether the priests were ready to use the “spiritual power” of their “weapon” in the socialist sense. He maintained that Czarist oppression rendered religion a victim and even regretted that the workers had failed to support it. This inclusive stance was possible because history had purportedly divested religion of its hold over the core Bolshevik constituency:  (2)

The modern class-conscious worker, reared by large-scale factory industry and enlightened by urban life, contemptuously casts aside religious prejudices, leaves heaven to the priests and […] takes the side of socialism, which enlists science in the battle against the fog of religion.(3)

Under conditions of modernity, the anti-religious thrust of the communist movement lost urgency. Rather than being a separate doctrine, atheism was to proceed from the entirety of the party program, which would solve the problem of religion. Lenin was all for combating the half-heartedness of

‘Christians’. But that does not mean in the least that the religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all political importance, being swept out as rubbish by the very course of economic development. (4)

Yet in case that the “economic development” lacked secularizing punch, Lenin would conflate the “ruling thoughts” (Marx)—or any un-communist consciousness, for that matter—with the concrete ruling class, disregarding abstract social relations. Endemic religiosity, he declared, was kept alive artificially:

The economic oppression of the workers inevitably calls forth. It engenders every kind of political oppression and social humiliation, the coarsening and darkening of the spiritual and moral life of the masses. […] religion is one of the forms of spiritual oppression which everywhere weighs down heavily upon the masses. (5)

Lenin bent Marx’s famous quote on religion as “opium of the people” almost to the point of declaring religion opium for the people, administered by the cunning hands of the bourgeoisie. (6)

Accordingly, Marxists had “to know how to combat religion,” which necessitated a “dialectical materialist” approach—the core consisted of leaving the fight against religion to the changing socio-economic conditions. Class war assumed priority over atheist propaganda. (7) Lenin was ready to countenance the consequences of this stance. For example, in the case of a strike, Marxists were

obliged to prioritize the success of the strike movement and to work decidedly against splitting the workers into atheists and Christians. […] Under these circumstances, atheist propaganda can be redundant, even obnoxious […] from the point of view of the true advance of the class struggle. (8)

It was only logical, therefore, that Lenin would relegate atheism to a secondary phenomenon on the revolutionary party’s agenda: “We are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their [pious workers’; PH] religious convictions, but we recruit them to educate them in the spirit of our programme.” (9)

Even recourse to socialism’s affinity to the world of religious terms was a perfectly viable option. An “agitator” could employ idioms “most common to the unenlightened mass” for educational purposes. Communists had to avoid creating the impression of “overemphasizing” the struggle against religion, which could lead to “obfuscation of the difference between bourgeois and socialist struggle against religion.” (10) What mattered in the assessment of faith and the struggle against it alike, then, was their social location more than anything else.

When it came to the application of these formulae after the October Revolution, the imperatives arising from the precarious situation of the Bolsheviks confirmed the theoretical thrust: As a pragmatist, Lenin had a keen sense of the limited viability of attacks on ‘mass culture,’ especially in the tense post-revolutionary years. As a historical materialist, religiosity hardly mattered in the final analysis anyway. The resulting hierarchy of emancipation of the Bolsheviks accordingly compromised libertarian principles. For example, in 1918 Lenin exhorted the delegates at the first All-Russian Female Workers’ Congress to be patient on the issue of abolition of patriarchal customs. The injurious effect of such measures on religious sentiment would outweigh the exemplary damage to a communist project of emancipation tolerating these customs—ignoring the very material disadvantages women were told to put up with. (11)

His 1919 draft of the program of the Communist Party of Russia (Bolshevik) (CPR[B]) envisaged the separation of state and the church as the first stage on the way to the attainment of the “factual emancipation of the working masses from religious prejudices,” aided by “scientifically enlightening and anti-religious propaganda.” However, “injuring religious sentiments” had to be avoided because it “merely leads to the reinforcement of religious fanaticism.” (12) The exact nature of the envisaged propaganda remained obscure since he did not reveal the secret of how to combat “religious prejudices” without hurting “religious sentiments,” or even how to properly distinguish between the two. Lenin’s maxim was to avoid “sharp measures” as they “could rouse the masses against us.” (13)

Although the proletariat was the proper revolutionary class, by the early 20th century, there had still been no comprehensive proletarian upheaval. The problem was, as August Thalheimer put it, that “under capitalist conditions, only a minority of the workers was able to liberate their minds entirely.” (14)  Lenin for once arrived at the insight that the messianic class had trouble living up to its historical role, and came to repose remarkably little faith in its innate revolutionary capability. As early as 1902, he had argued in What Is to Be Done that the workers “were not, and could not be, conscious of the irreconcilable antagonism of their interests to the whole of the modern political and social system […] theirs was not yet Social-Democratic consciousness.” If left to themselves the workers would develop only “trade-union consciousness,” that is, “the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labour legislation, etc.” (15)

In this situation, “political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without.” The state of affairs demanded “a high degree of consciousness from us SocialDemocrats.” ‘True’ social democrats had to provide the workers with “real, comprehensive, and live political knowledge. ” This was to be the task of the “vanguard”—an organization of professional revolutionaries. (16)

Apart from conceiving of a vanguard party as the guiding light towards revolution, this exhortation by Lenin introduced another novel category: the “masses.” Formally, they constituted the “majority” comprising not only workers but also all other exploited population segments. Lenin explicitly referred to the rural proletariat and poor peasants. (17)  Yet the course of the term’s application revealed the vagueness of its meaning and scope. It provided a convenient way of referring to large population sections whose explicit identification would have invited disquieting investigations into the adequacy of their inclusion in the revolutionary phalanx (notably the peasantry, which Marx had regarded as hopelessly backward). This vagueness turned out to be advantageous for the term’s career. In comparison to the workers, the stocks of the “masses” rose steeply in Lenin’s model of revolution, even more so once the extra-European world came into revolutionary perspective. The task of a communist avant-garde worth its salt consisted of “serving the masses and expressing their correctly identified interests.” (18) Lenin imagined the ideal social democrat as a “tribune of the people” rather than a petty trade union secretary. (19)  Postulates along these lines left considerable space for the interpretation of what exactly “serving” the “people” meant, and what was identified as the essence of their “interests.”

To the extent that an innate ‘proletarian consciousness’ evolving into mere “trade-union consciousness” was explicitly distrusted, the working class lost its distinctiveness as a revolutionary factor. In fact, Lenin’s considerations ushered in the gradual replacement of proletarian—that is, socialist—revolution with mass—that is, populist—revolution. The consequence was the transfer of an ontologized notion of progress from the proletariat onto the ‘masses’ as the rising agent of revolutionary essence. This transfer would really come into its own in Lenin’s most fateful revolutionary innovation: discovering the national question.

     Grigory Zinoviev, 1918

Even though the Russian Orthodox Church had been expropriated and relieved of most of its social functions after the revolution, the Bolshevik focus on the Church as an institution implied that the noninstitutionalized parts of Soviet Christianity were beyond the reach of religious legislation and anticlerical measures. For instance, evangelical sects prospered under the new regime. Soviet morals essentially conformed to conservative Christian norms. (20)

For a while, the CPR(B) considered the population of the Eastern territories “culturally backward,” a revolutionary perspective demanded that the nationalities themselves, as a historically progressive factor, be judged more respectfully. Their delayed evolution was declared a consequence of Czarist oppression, and the Russian proletariat, belonging to the erstwhile oppressing nation, had to proceed with “special caution and special attention towards the […] national feelings among the working masses of the suppressed […] nations.” (21)  The way to “raise the cultural level” consisted of the “development of maximum autonomy,” apparently the silver bullet of emancipation. The culturally self-critical thrust of the revolution in the Russian heartland led Stalin to distinguish between the “proletarian revolution of the West, and the anti-imperialist movement of the East” (22)  Russian culture was considered to be infested with the vestiges of Czarist rule and therefore in no need of reform. On the other hand, in the case of the East, the Bolsheviks regarded questionable cultural features such as patriarchy and religiosity as artificially fostered and as basically external phenomena.

From this viewpoint, the major obstacle to the implementation of revolutionary tenets could only be the “haste, often becoming gross tactlessness […] in the matter of sovietising [sic] the border regions.” Their population was to partake in the “higher moral and material proletarian culture,” albeit in “forms corresponding to the way of life and the national imprint of these masses.” For example, if the people of Dagestan, “heavily infected by religious prejudices, follow the communists ‘on the grounds of the sharia’ it is clear that the direct path of struggle against religious prejudices in this land has to be replaced by indirect, more cautious paths.” (23)

These “more cautious” paths to the “higher and material proletarian culture” culminated in Stalin’s declaration in November 1920 at the Congress of the Peoples of Dagestan that “the Russian government grants the full right to self-determination according to its own laws and customs to every people. The Soviet government deems the sharia a […] justified, traditional right.” (24)  After the victorious conclusion of the civil war, this could be no admission of weakness. The mullahs of the Terek region equally benefited from the benevolence towards Islamic law when Stalin reassured them that the Soviet government had no intention “to declare war on the sharia.” (25)

This had not materialized out of thin air. Already in December 1917, the Kremlin issued a manifesto addressed to the “working Moslems” declaring inviolable all their “faiths and customs” together with national and “cultural institutions.” (26)  In January 1918, a Commissariat for the Internal Affairs of Muslims (Muskom) was established; a central Bureau for Muslim Communist Organizations followed in November. In July, the Bolsheviks had appealed to Muslim workers to join a socialist army made up exclusively of Muslims. A separate Muslim communist party was also set up. (27)

As long as there were no efforts at political separation, which—such as the Basmachi rebellion—were ruthlessly crushed, accounting for the “forms corresponding to the way of life” generally discouraged intervention and instead promoted their ‘internal’ cultural affairs. These endeavours to revolutionize Muslims in the Eastern way fortified rather than transformed their societies and relegated them to a different revolutionary class through continued positive reference to Islam.

 Caricature of Karl Radek in Low’s autobiography

The Congress of the Peoples of the East, convened in Baku in September 1920, epitomized the Bolshevik approach. The call for attendance had already likened participation at the gathering to the “Hajj” and undertook to situate itself in the traditional horizon of its addressees: “Formerly you used to cross the desert to visit the sacred places: Now cross deserts and mountains and rivers to meet together and discuss how to free yourselves from the chains of servitude.” The overwhelmingly conservative outlook of the delegates did not bother Grigori Zinoviev, the conference’s convener and General Secretary of the Communist International: “We know that most of you […] hold different views from ours. This does not matter [….] All we ask you is to struggle against capitalism and to throw off the foreign political yoke.” (28)

The speakers after him translated these exhortations into their own terms. Enver Pasha, an iconic figure of the contemporary pan-Islamic movement, stated that his life followed the path charted out by Allah. An unnamed Egyptian delegate gave a “very curious account” (Carr) of his view of how Bolshevik inspiration could lead the “Oriental peoples” to liberty: “The Orient” expected Bolshevism to bring about the revival of Islam, for which he considered it the crucial ingredient. (29) Narbutabek, a lawyer from Turkestan, demanded that Muslim Central Asia be rid of foreigners, including Russians. Jalal-ud-din Korkmasev from Dagestan boasted of having embarked on ghazawat, a “holy war.” (30)  And a petition from Abdur Rab Barq, head of the Revolutionary Association of subcontinental national revolutionaries in Tashkent called for support for the struggle of oppressed India without intervention in the family or religious life of the population. (31)

Zinoviev himself demonstrated, to the delight of the audience, that the notion of ghazawat went down well with the Bolsheviks:

Comrades! Brothers! The time has come when you can start the organization of a true and holy people’s war against the robbers and oppressors. […] Brothers, we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against English imperialism! (Stormy applause. Prolonged hurrahs. The members of congress rise from their seats and brandish their weapons. […] The delegates stand and clap applause. The cry rings out: ‘We swear it’). (32)

Karl Radek averred that “the eastern policy of the Soviet Government is […] no diplomatic maneuver […] to win advantages for the Soviet republic,” an avowal underpinned by Stalin’s simultaneous institution of sharia law. (33)  The framework of Eastern mobilization was a consequence of firm revolutionary ‘othering’ replete with its own set of revolutionary categories. They centred on ‘nation,’ which implied culture and religion—in the Soviet case, notably Islam. The enthusiasm for native religion is aptly demonstrated by a temporarily popular, if ultimately marginal, the strand of left-wing thought: Muslim national communism.

References –

The quotes of Karl Marx from, Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843), published in 1970, translated by Joseph O’Malley, Oxford University Press

1. Lenin, “To Village Poverty,” in LW 6:401–2

2. Lenin, “Socialism and Religion,” in LW 10:72 (quotes); Lenin, What Is to Be Done?

3. Lenin, “Socialism and Religion,” 71.

4. Ibid. 74.

5. Ibid., 70.

6. Lenin, “Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion,” in LW 15:405.

7. Ibid., 408

8. Ibid. 409.

9. Ibid. 411

10. Ibid., 412–14.

11. Lenin, “Speech on the First All-Russian Women Workers’ Congress,” in LW 28:176.

12. Lenin, “Draft Programme of the CPR(B),” in LW 29:118.

13. Lenin, “Speech on the First All-Russian Women Workers’ Congress,” in LW 28:176.

14. August Thalheimer, Introduction to Dialectical Materialism (the modern worldview):, Sixteen lectures given at Sun Yat-Sen University in Moscow from February 5 to May 23, 1927, (Berlin: Verlag für Literatur und Politik 1928), 28–31.

15. Lenin, What Is to Be Done?

16. ibid.

17. Lenin, “Speech in Defense of the Tactic of the Comintern,” in LW 32:498–504.

18. Lenin, “How V. Zasulich Demolishes Liquidationism,” in LW 19:400.

19. Lenin, What Is to Be Done?

20. See chapters 4 and 10 in John Shelton Curtiss, The Russian Church and the Soviet State 1917–1950 (Boston: Little Brown 1953); on Soviet evangelicals, see Dianne Kirby, “Kommunismus, Islam und USAußenpolitik zu Beginn des Kalten Krieges,” in Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung 2009, ed. Ulrich Mählert et al. (Berlin: Aufbau 2009), 165; see also David Priestland, Weltgeschichte des Kommunismus: Von der Französischen Revolution bis Heute (München: Siedler 2009), 132.

21. Stalin, “Our Tasks in the East,” in SW 4:209–10

22. Stalin, “Our Tasks in the East,” 211.  

23. Stalin, “The Policy of the Soviet,” 318–19.

24. Congress of the Peoples of Dagestan,” in SW 4:348–50

25. Congress of the Peoples of the Terek Region,” in SW 4:354. In 1922, the Soviet government restored confiscated religious property to the ulama. It recognized Friday as a Muslim holiday: Georg von Stackelberg, “The Tenacity of Islam in Soviet Central Asia,” in religion and the Search for New Ideals in the USSR, ed. William Fletcher and Antony Strover (Allahabad: Prager 1967), 93

26. “Message from V. I. Lenin, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars and J. V. Stalin, People’s Commissar for Nationalities Affairs, to all the Working Moslems of Russia and of the East,” in Milestones of Soviet Foreign Policy 1917–1967 (Moscow: Progress Publishers 1967), 34–5.

27. Azade-Ayse, Rorlich, “Islam under Communist Rule: Volga-Ural Muslims,” Central Asian Survey 1 (1982):18

28. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1:260–1

29. ibid., 260–1

30. Brian Pearce, trans., Congress of the Peoples of the East—Baku, September 1920 (London: New Park Publ. 1977), 67.

31. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1:263.

32. n Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1:261.

33. Pearce, Congress of the Peoples, 41  

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