Socialists and Islam: Enlightenment by force

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2004 - 8:59

Gerry Byrne concludes her series of articles about Bolsheviks and Islam

"By 1924, the Bolsheviks had turned their attention to Central Asia and the liberation of women there. Their approach combined propaganda about the benefits to women of the soviet law, and encouragement to participate in politics and production, with practical material benefits, education, training, social and medical care.
"In the absence of native activists, it was the most dedicated and courageous members of Zhenotdel [Department of Working Women and Peasant Women] who donned the paranja [veil] in order to meet with Muslim women and explain the new Soviet laws and programs which were to change their lives. This was an extremely dangerous assignment, as any violation of a local taboo enraged husbands, fathers and brothers to murder. In fact, the discovery of numerous dismembered bodies of Zhenotdel organizers finally compelled the Soviet government to reinstate the death penalty for explicitly 'anti-feminist' murder as a counterrevolutionary crime, although non-political murder (even murder committed in vengeance against wives) received a standard sentence of five to 10 years' imprisonment.

"This policy met with a fair degree of success. Illiteracy among women was being eliminated, and women began to vote for the first time, and even run for office.

"This changed abruptly with the consolidation of Stalin's power at the beginning of 1924. From a recognition that liberation primarily depended on persuading women that socialism offered them a better life, the policy then became one of 'enlightenment by force': the legal offensive against traditional practices in Central Asia was stepped up until the divorce rate assumed epidemic proportions. Although local party branches protested the pace of the offensive and warned that it had become 'demoralizing to all concerned and a threat to continued Soviet rule,' Zhenotdel continued its one-sided agitation for women to initiate divorce, until the Red Yertas, clubs and hospitals were filled with far more divorcees than they could possibly handle. Under the impact of masses of women whom they could not support, these organizations in desperation simply dissolved. In some cases, they were transformed into brothels.

"In 1927 the offensive was narrowed still further to a single-issue campaign against seclusion and the veil known as Khudshum. First, party meetings were held at which husbands unveiled their wives. Then on 8 March 1927, in celebration of International Woman's Day, mass meetings were held at which thousands of frenzied participants, chanting 'Down with the paranja!' tore off their veils, which were drenched in paraffin and burned. Poems were recited and plays with names such as 'Away with the Veil,' and 'Never Again Kalym' were performed. Zhenotdel agitators led marches of unveiled women through the streets, instigating the forced desegregation of public quarters and sanctified religious sites. Protected by soldiers, bands of poor women roamed the streets, tearing veils off wealthier women, hunting for hidden food and pointing out those who still clung to traditional practices which had now been declared crimes (such as conspiring to arrange a marriage for exchange of kalym).

"The Khudzhum appeared to be a success on 8 March, but on 9 March hundreds of unveiled women were massacred by their kinsmen, and this reaction, fanned by Muslim clergy, who interpreted recent earthquakes as Allah's punishment for the unveilings, grew in strength. Remnants of the Basmachi rebels reorganized themselves into Tash Kuran (secret, counterrevolutionary organizations) which flourished as a result of their pledge to preserve Narkh (local customs and values).

"Women suing for divorce became the targets of murderous vigilante squads, and lynchings of party cadre annihilated the ranks of the Zhenotdel. The massive terror unleashed against the recently unveiled women - which ranged from spitting and laughing at them to gang rape and murder - forced most of them to take up the veil again soon after repudiating it.

"The party was forced to mobilize the militia, then the Komsomols and finally the general party membership and the Red Army to protect the women, but it refused to alter its suicidal policies. The debacle of International Woman's Day was repeated in 1928 and 1929 with the same disastrous consequences, exacting an extremely high toll on party cadre. Lacking Zhenotdel leadership those clubs which had survived the legal offensive now disappeared."

The above account of the Stalinist Khudzhum ("storming"), from the US socialist magazine, Women and Revolution**, is not disputed. It seems like a rehearsal in Central Asia for the later terroristic "campaign to liquidate the kulaks [rich peasants] as a class" and forced collectivisation of agriculture. It is the pursuit of elements of the socialist programme in defiance of material reality. The net result of the campaign was not the extension of women's liberation in Central Asia, but the annihilation of the most politicised women, the strengthening of reactionary forces and the reversal of all the positive social gains of the previous period.

Stalin's role, and the clear break with Bolshevik policy under Lenin, is undeniable. But it would be wrong to cast the difference as between being hard or soft on Islam, and even more so to project that difference onto current conditions.

The account in Socialist Review* contains a clear subtext: that the SWP's current opportunist policy towards Islam is in the tradition of Lenin, and that the opposition of present day socialists (such as the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, who publish Solidarity) political Islam has more in common with Stalin.

The "argument" consists of an assembly of "evidence" ripped out of context:

  • Lenin's strong opposition to "soviet colonialism";
  • The participation of Muslim regiments and irregulars on the side of the Bolsheviks in the civil war;
  • The parallel soviet and Sharia legal and education systems which existed for a period;
  • Islamic socialism and alliances with pan-Islamic groups;
  • The Baku Congress of Peoples of the East call for "holy war" against imperialism;
  • 1922 Fourth Congress of the Comintern's endorsement of alliances with pan-Islamic movements against imperialism;
  • Stalinist 'Khudzhum' (assault or storming) against Islam. Enlightenment by force.

These do show the differences in method between Lenin and Stalin, but it is not between accommodation or opposition to Islam, but between materialism and voluntarism, between sober calculation of the interests of the international working class and demagogic bloody campaigns which used whole peoples as pawns in Stalin's consolidation of his personal power.

Lenin was above all things a materialist. He expended enormous effort in analysing the development of capitalism in Russia, before the revolution. As leader of the soviet state, he was always aware of the fragile material base for socialism in Russia, its dependence on the class struggle in the more developed capitalist economies coming to aid their undeveloped economy.

There was no single "Bolshevik policy" towards Islam. There was the interaction of the principles of working class self-liberation with the materialist understanding of where the soviet state and the international class struggle stood at any point. So in the first year of the revolution, the emphasis was on the liberation of all oppressed peoples from the yoke of the Tsarist empire and Great Russian chauvinism. Lenin stood squarely in the tradition of Marxism in championing the rights of all the oppressed, and one of the first acts of the soviet government was proclaiming the freedom of national minorities within the former Tsarist empire. In line with this, he was for harsh treatment of any "soviet" official or body using the rhetoric of class struggle as a cover for chauvinism.

As the civil war and wars of imperialist intervention threatened the very existence of the workers' state, military alliances came to the fore. What was at stake was the victorious Russian working class and the example the revolution set to the workers of the imperialist countries. Had the Whites and the imperialists succeeded, the victory of reaction would have been bloody suppression of the working class - as Trotsky later put it, "fascism would have borne a Russian name".

After the civil war, the devastated economy meant concessions to capitalism, and controlled reintroduction of market elements, in the guise of the NEP. The alternative was famine, which would be neither in the interests of the Russian workers, nor a great example to the workers of the west. It was in that context that the Bolsheviks tolerated some elements of Sharia law and Muslim education: they were not in any position to provide a positive alternative to the social role played by these feudal institutions.

As resources allowed, the Bolsheviks moved to undermine these reactionary institutions by proving the soviet system offered freedom and material well-being, especially for the desperately oppressed women of the east.

On the ideological level, Lenin was always clear in his insistence on the independence of the working class party. Tactical alliances with bourgeois-democratic national liberation movements, including with pan-Islamic movements, were permissible, but the communists never subordinated their politics to those of the nationalists or pan-Islamists, and continued to pursue the class struggle within the oppressed nations and colonies.

How does this relate to current debates? The SWP, for example in Respect, explicitly volunteers to surrender its political programme in the hope of attracting an undifferentiated "Muslim community". Of course, socialists should pay particular attention to attracting Muslim workers and young people, who are among the most deprived, impoverished and oppressed in our society. But we do this by supporting their democratic demands and, primarily, by relating to them on a class basis. The SWP ditches both democratic and working class demands in order to attract (unsuccessfully as it turns out) petty bourgeois and occasionally bourgeois sections of the "Muslim community".

And how does it demonstrate its materialist understanding of the current world? By an inverse-racist, completely unmaterialist division of the world into "imperialist nations" (lumping together the US working class with their ruling class) and "anti-imperialist nations" (including the feudal reactionary Arab regimes, Islamist theocracies, fascistic reactionary movements of the dispossessed). In other words, it takes the spurious division of the world along national/racial/religious lines, divisions which are the ideological armoury of our class enemies, and treats them as real. This has much more in common with the Stalinist worldview, an extension of the doctrine of "socialism in one country", which divided the world into camps, pro- or anti-USSR.

Stalin, and his later apologists (including some so-called "Trotskyists") would represent this as a continuity with Lenin's tactical manoeuvres to defend the Russian revolution and the fragile workers' state. But Lenin, and the early Comintern, always made it clear that the defence of the workers' state was part of the struggle of the international working class, not opposed to it, as it later became under Stalin.

The Socialist Review article gives a highly selective and one-sided view of the relations of the Bolsheviks to Islam. It does so to provide cover for a current politics that is neither Marxist, materialist, Leninist, nor in the interest of Muslim workers in this country, nor oppressed Muslims internationally. Their interests lie, as they did in Lenin's time, in international working class unity and the working class as the champions of democracy, not in their subordination to feudal reactionary and fascistic forces which would destroy working class organisation as soon as they come to power.

* Socialist Review, December 2003

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