The Bolsheviks and Islam

Issue: 110

Dave Crouch

Faced with a possible disaster in Iraq, the political establishment has closed ranks to scapegoat Islam. On the day of the London bombings in July 2005, Blair’s foreign secretary Jack Straw set the tone for a renewed onslaught, crudely dismissing any connection with Iraq. Solidarity with Muslims in the anti-war movement has been pilloried by the right’s most effective allies—critics with left-liberal credentials.1 The response to the racist cartoon published in European newspapers has highlighted the extent of Islamophobia in so called liberal circles—and confusion on the left.

On the revolutionary left the issue has polarised around attitudes to the Islamic headscarf. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire’s Gilbert Achcar takes a position somewhere in the middle, criticising some within his own party and others on the French left over the hijab, while accusing the Socialist Workers Party of choosing to ally electorally ‘with an Islamic fundamentalist organisation like the Muslim Association of Britain’.2 However, Achcar appears to make a huge concession to the right’s contention that Islam is uniquely different from other religions when he argues that the Koran rules out left wing, ‘liberation theology’ interpretations of the kind encountered in Christianity. For Achcar, the Koran traps Muslims in a reactionary mind-set.3

In fact there are plenty of examples of left wing organisation emerging from among people with Islamic beliefs. Malcolm X was a major influence on the leaders of the revolutionary Black Panther Party in the 1960s, while leaders of the Mujahadeen in Iran argued for a fusion of Marxism and Islam in their guerrilla struggle against the Shah. At the same time, the ruling class in Islamic countr ies has frequently experimented with left rhetoric to boost its popular appeal, such as the ‘Islamic socialism’ proclaimed by the leaders of the military coup in Afghanistan in 1973 or by Zulfikar Bhutto during his nationalisation programme in Pakistan in the mid-1970s.

So if, as we might expect, Muslims can have revolutionary ideas, what is the historical experience of principled Marxist organisations that have tried to win them to socialism? Missing from much of the discussion is an appreciation of how Lenin’s Bolsheviks made their revolution after 1917 among the peoples of the former Russian Empire, where 10 percent of the population—some 16 million people—were Muslims. This brief article is a contribution to filling this gap. I shall try to show that Bolshevik policy from 1917 to the mid-1920s was radically different from the witchhunt that Stalin launched against Islam from 1927, and that in those early years the Bolsheviks welcomed practising Muslims into the Communist Party and pursued large-scale united front work with Islamic organisations.

My aim is to rescue Lenin’s record from the slurs cast on him by the right, and to draw some lessons from the Bolsheviks’ experience. The matter is one of more general significance for a small and battered revolutionary left emerging from isolation after 30 years of downturn. As Alex Callinicos has pointed out, ‘The issue of the hijab is really a symptom of the real problem, which is how to expand our movement to embrace those at the bottom of European society who suffer both economic exploitation and racial oppression and many of whom, for that very reason, strongly attach themselves to their Muslim faith’.4 If we dismiss workers because of the clothes they wear or the beliefs they hold, we condemn ourselves to the sectarian wilderness. It is hardly an exaggeration to say the left has an internationalist duty to stand with Muslims against racism and imperialism.

This is also a deeply personal subject, so I ought to say something about my own beliefs. As a boy I was attracted to the ritual of the Anglican church, which I attended regularly. All the same, I don’t recall having any genuine religious conviction until my early 20s, when I had a powerful sense that my fate was in the hands of a higher being. In retrospect this was probably a reflection of the personal upheaval, poverty and hopelessness I experienced at the time. I was bitterly angry about society and could conceivably have been attracted to a religious sect, to violence, or religious violence. Instead I found Marxism offered a more effective understanding of the world and a guide to changing it.

Christianity under the Bolsheviks

Ask most religious people about the USSR and they will reel off a list of indisputable crimes that Stalin committed against faith of any sort. Too often they tar all socialists with the same brush. However, the truth is Stalinism had nothing to do with the reality of the Bolshevik Party in Lenin’s time, or with the early years of its rule in Russia. For a start, while the party’s programme was avowedly atheist, atheism was never a condition of party membership: for the Bolsheviks, religion was the private affair of every citizen. In 1905 Lenin wrote a diatribe against including atheism in the party programme, insisting, ‘No number of pamphlets and no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat if it is not enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism’.5

So socialists expect people to hold religious ideas when they first come into contact with socialist organisations, and to lose their religious convictions only insofar as they become convinced of their power to change the world. Marx preceded his famous dictum that religion is ‘the opium of the people’ with the recognition that religion can also provide a language in which people talk about the reality of their oppression and express aspirations to resist that oppression:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real 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.6

Lenin was clear that it was political suicide to insist workers abandon their religious beliefs before joining a revolutionary party. On the contrary, he encouraged the recruitment of believers. ‘We are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions,’ he wrote in 1909. Those who did so, he called ‘infant-school materialists’:

The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparent complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extraordinary events such as wars, earthquakes, etc.7

The Russian Marxists also understood that workers’ radicalisation could be reflected in their religious beliefs. In his autobiography Trotsky recalls that, for workers in Ukraine during the strike wave of the late 1890s, breaking away from the Russian Orthodox church to join another faith, such as the Baptists who ‘waged war on the official religion’, was often a first step on the road to socialist politics, ‘a temporary phase for them in their progress towards revolution’.8 A similar observation lay behind Lenin’s proposal in 1903 to publish a newspaper aimed at members of Christian religious sects, who numbered more than 10 million in Russia at the time. Nine issues of Rassvet (‘The Dawn’), were published in 1904 ‘by way of an experiment’.9

The Bolsheviks’ non-sectarian approach to Christianity was put to the test by the general strike in Petersburg in January 1905. This culminated in a march of 200,000 workers to petition the tsar on 9 January, which ended in a massacre by troops. The movement was led by a priest, Georgy Gapon, who was widely suspected of being a police spy. The Bolsheviks nonetheless joined the demonstration, after which Lenin made every effort to meet Gapon, speak with him and even recruit him.10 Gapon was a Russian Orthodox priest and the church was closely tied to the tsarist state, right down to the lowest levels of the village hierarchy. Some of its priests led pogroms against Jews and organised the Black Hundreds, gangs that attacked workers and any opponents of the regime. But the fact that tsarism used Orthodoxy as a weapon of class rule did not blind the Bolsheviks to the fact that many ordinary Russians held Orthodox beliefs for very different reasons.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, they declared the Soviet state to be non-religious, not anti-religious. In December the Russian Orthodox church was disestablished and lost its rights to own property, while the registration of births, marriage, divorce and education became non-religious functions of the state. Churches were put to use as schools, housing, clubs and so on, but religious groups were free to petition central and local officials for the free use of any building for worship. Schools were secular, but not anti-religious.

Issuing a decree was one thing, but disestablishing the church in practice was another. In places Orthodox feeling ran high and there were instances in which congregations clashed with Bolsheviks over the control of church property. Popular support for Orthodoxy was significantly undermined, however, in late 1921 when its leader, Patriarch Tikhon, refused to sell off church valuables to raise foreign currency needed to feed famine victims, of whom there were millions. This was the context in which some 45 priests were executed for organising resistance to Trotsky’s campaign to seize wealth from the church. This harsh policy has to be seen in the context of a famine emergency, not as a malicious attack on the church.11

In fact, some Christian churches flourished under the Bolsheviks. The evangelical Protestant movement—which comprised several denominational organisations, including Baptists, Evangelical Christians, Pentecostals and Adventists—grew from about 100,000 participants to more than a million in the first decade of Soviet rule. These evangelicals engaged in widespread, vigorous proselytising, taking advantage of the Soviet constitution’s insistence on freedom of religious propaganda. They published an array of religious works, operated Bible schools to train preachers, organised charity programmes and created agricultural and manufacturing cooperatives.12

One reason for the rise in evangelism was the stunning decision by Trotsky in October 1918 (backed by the government a few months later) to permit people who could prove that their religious convictions prohibited military service to substitute medical service for combat duty. This came just as the civil war was getting into full swing. Paul Steeves, an academic who has studied the Russian evangelicals and who is hostile to the Bolsheviks, notes that it is impossible to establish a direct, causal relationship between pacifism and the movement’s expansion, but he notes that, with specific regard to the Baptists, ‘the distinct period [1917-1926] when pacifist views dominated the administration of the Russian Baptist Union coincided with a time of extraordinary numerical growth in participation in the Baptist movement’.13 In other words, young men joined the evangelists to escape military service. Yet the Bolshevik leadership decided that this was a price they would have to pay for upholding the political principle of religious freedom.

Once in power after the revolution, Lenin was concerned that atheist propaganda should be moderate. ‘We must be extremely careful in fighting religious prejudices; some people cause a lot of harm in this struggle by offending religious feelings. We must use propaganda and education. By lending too sharp an edge to the struggle we may only arouse popular resentment,’ he wrote in November 1918. In 1921 Lenin persuaded the party’s Central Committee to issue a directive reprimanding party members who violated his counsel: ‘Emphatically avoid everything that would give a basis for any individual nationality to think, and our enemies to say, that we persecute people for their religious faith’.14
There were instances in which groups of Communists did set out to offend religious feeling, however. The ‘Red Christmas’ organised by the Young Communist League on 6 January 1923 involved processions of students and working class youth who dressed as clowns, sang the Internationale and burned effigies of religious figures. But such events were the exception to the rule and were attacked by the Bolshevik leadership. 15 Moreover, atheist propaganda was singularly unsuccessful, as might have been expected as the revolutionary wave dissipated after the Russian Civil War and the defeat of the German Revolution. The Bolsheviks saw the eradication of religion as possible only with the building of a ‘novyi byt’—clean, warm and healthy living conditions, electrification, advanced agriculture, rising standards of living. But in the mid-1920s they were still struggling to overcome the calamitous consequences of seven years at war.

Lenin’s essay ‘On the Significance of Militant Materialism’ was published in March 1922, and the first issue of Bezbozhnik (The Atheist) came out later that year, the first sustained, mass atheist newspaper. But this and other publications failed to have any real impact: soon their editors were scrabbling around for material. The League of the Godless was established by a small group of demoralised atheists in 1925, but was ineffective in its early years. It became the League of the Militant Godless only in 1929 when Stalin, in effect, outlawed all religious activity. Only then did the League’s membership explode: by 1931 it had 5 million members.16

Islam and the collapse of empire

Muslims had suffered massively at the hands of Russian imperialism. The anger came to the surface after the introduction of conscription in Central Asia during the First World War, when the mass rebellion of summer 1916 saw 2,500 Russian colonialists lose their lives. The revolt was followed by ferocious repression: the Russians massacred some 83,000 people. The crisis of tsarism in 1917 therefore radicalised millions of Muslims, who demanded religious freedom and national rights denied them by the empire. On 1 May 1917 the First All-Russian Congress of Muslims took place in Moscow. Of 1,000 delegates, 200 were women. After heated debates the congress voted for an eight-hour working day, the abolition of private landed property, confiscation without indemnity of large properties, equality of political rights for women, and an end to polygamy and purdah. The congress meant that Russia’s Muslims were the first in the world to free women from the restrictions typical of Islamic societies of that period.17

Islam under the empire was far from being a monolithic faith. The Tartars and Kyrgyz, for example, had no tradition of veiling women. Where the veil and female seclusion were in place in Central Asia, the practices often post-dated Russian colonisation and were a feature among urban women in reasonably affluent families.18 An intellectual current within Islam in Central Asia, the Jadids or ‘new method men’ came to have enormous significance for the revolution. They sought to reinterpret their Muslim heritage in light of the Russian conquest.
The Jadids formulated a harsh critique of turn of the century Central Asian society, attributing the ‘decline’ and ‘degeneration’ of their community to its departure from the path of ‘pure’ Islam. But ‘pure Islam’ for the Jadids meant a rationalist interpretation of the scriptural texts, the prerequisite of which was modern knowledge, which made nations strong and wealthy. Their leading thinkers were as fascinated by progress and technology as they were concerned about taking their society on the path of Islam. These antifeudal, middle class intellectuals wanted to see religion taken out of education and women to play a much more active role in society.19

The Jadids therefore had an orientation on the West as being ‘progressive’ and modern, and against the Islamic clergy who they saw as holding back Muslim society. They identified with Russian liberalism and therefore backed the war in 1914. But as the corpses mounted, the Jadids turned away from their former ideal. A further blow came in 1918 when Trotsky published the secret treaties showing Western imperialism’s plans to dismember the Ottoman Empire.

By then the Jadids called themselves the Young Bukharans, a reference to the Young Turks who had led the Turkish revolution of 1908 (Bukhara was a religious and cultural centre in Central Asia). Abdurauf Fitrat, the most influential Jadid of the period, would write in 1919 that the duty to drive the English out of India was ‘as great as saving the pages of the Quran from being trampled by an animal…a worry as great as that of driving a pig out of a mosque’. Bolshevism became an attractive alternative to many Jadids, who ‘flocked to the new organs of government being built by the Soviet regime’.20 The Muslim Commissariat in Moscow oversaw Russia’s policy towards Islam; Muslims with few communist credentials were granted leading positions in the organisation.21

The Jadids were not alone among Muslims of the former empire in being drawn to Bolshevism. There was widespread discussion among Muslims of the similarity of Islamic values with socialist principles. Supporters of ‘Islamic socialism’ appealed to Muslims to set up soviets. Popular slogans included: ‘Religion, freedom and national independence!’ ‘Long live soviet power, long live the sharia!’22

A glimpse into the attitudes of the time is given by Mohammed Barkatullah, formerly a professor in Japan, who in 1919 was an adviser to the monarchy in Afghanistan, which was gearing up for war on the British. Barkatullah travelled widely in Central Asia (then known as Turkestan) distributng his pamphlet Bolshevism and the Islamic Body Politic. A copy fell into the hands of the British secret service in India, who translated it from Persian. It is worth quoting at some length:

Following on the dark long nights of tsarist autocracy, the dawn of human freedom has appeared on the Russian horizon, with Lenin as the shining sun giving light and splendour to this day of human happiness… The administration of the extensive territories of Russia and Turkestan has been placed in the hands of labourers, cultivators and soldiers. Distinction of race, religion and class has disappeared… But the enemy of this pure, unique republic is British imperialism, which hopes to keep Asiatic nations in a state of eternal thraldom. It has moved troops into Turkestan with a view to felling the young tree of perfect human liberty just as it is beginning to take root and strength. Time has come for Muhammedans of the world and Asiatic nations to understand the noble principles of Russian socialism and to embrace it seriously and enthusiastically. They should fathom and realise the cardinal virtues taught by this new system, and in defence of the true freedom they should join the Bolshevik troops in repelling attacks of usurpers and despots, the British. They should, without loss of time, send their children to Russian schools to learn modern sciences, noble arts, practical physics, chemistry, mechanics, etc. Oh Muhammedans! Listen to this divine cry. Respond to this call of liberty, equality and brothership which brother Lenin and the Soviet government of Russia are offering you.23

Muslims and Soviets

Religious freedom was an important aspect of national freedom for the oppressed peoples of the former Russian colonies. Bolshevik policy aimed, as far as possible, to make amends for the crimes of tsarism against national minorities and their religions. This was not only a matter of basic justice and elementary democracy, but also necessary to enable class divisions among Muslims themselves to come to the fore. National autonomy and independence from Russia were thus key aspects of Soviet policy. A declaration
‘To all the Muslim workers of Russia and the East’, issued by the fledgling Soviet government on 24 November 1917, stated:

Muslims of Russia…all you whose mosques and prayer houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the tsars and oppressors of Russia: your beliefs and practices, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the revolution…

A massive programme of what would now be called affirmative action was introduced, known as ‘korenizatsiia’ or ‘indigenisation’. It started with kicking out the Russian and Cossack colonists and their ideologues in the Russian Orthodox church. The Russian language ceased to dominate, and native languages returned to schools, government and publishing. Indigenous people were promoted to leading positions in the state and Communist parties and given preference over Russians in employment. Universities were established to train a new generation of non-Russian leaders.24

Sacred Islamic monuments, books and objects looted by the tsars were returned to the mosques: the Sacred Koran of Osman was ceremoniously handed over to a Muslim Congress in Petrograd in December 1917.25 Friday, the day of Muslim religious celebration, was declared the legal day of rest throughout Central Asia.26

Sharia law had been a central demand of Muslims during the February Revolution of 1917 and, as the civil war drew to a close in 1920-1921, a parallel court system was created in Central Asia and the Caucasus, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia law side by side with Soviet legal institutions. The aim was for people to have a choice between religious and revolutionary justice. A Sharia Commission was established in the Soviet Commissariat of Justice to oversee the system. In 1921 a series of commissions were attached to regional units of the Soviet administration with the purpose of adapting the Russian legal code to the conditions of Central Asia, allowing for compromise between the two systems on questions such as under-age marriage and polygamy.

Some sharia sentences, such as stoning or cutting hands off, were outlawed. Decisions of the sharia courts that concerned these matters had to be confirmed by higher organs of justice. Some sharia courts flouted the Soviet law, refusing to award divorces upon the petition of a wife, or equating the testimony of two women to that of one man. So in December 1922 a decree introduced retrials in Soviet courts if requested by one of the parties. All the same, 30 to 50 percent of court cases were resolved by sharia courts, and in Chechnya the figure was as high as 80 percent. Moreover, the influence was not all one way: there were instances in which Soviet officials were swayed by sharia law, convicting men for drinking alcohol or entering a house with an unveiled woman.27

A parallel education system was also established. In 1922 rights to certain waqf (Islamic) properties were restored to Muslim administration, with the proviso that they be used for education. As a result, the system of madressahs—religious schools—was extensive. In 1925 there were 1,500 madrassas with 45,000 students in the Caucasus state of Dagestan, as opposed to just 183 state schools. By November 1921 there were more than 1,000 soviet schools in Central Asia, but the 85,000 pupils were a modest number compared with the potential enrolment figure.28

The effect of Bolshevik policies was to split the Islamic movement between right and left. Historians appear to agree that a majority of Muslim leaders expressed conditional support for the workers’ state, convinced that there was a greater chance of religious liberty under Soviet power.29 The Bolsheviks were therefore able to conclude alliances with the Kazakh pan-Islamic group the Ush-Zhuz (which joined the Communist Party in 1920), the Persian pan-Islamist guerillas in the Jengelis, and the Vaisites, a mystic Sufi brotherhood. In Dagestan, Soviet power was established largely thanks to the partisans of the Muslim leader Ali-Hadji Akushinskii. In Chechnya the Bolsheviks won over Ali Mataev, the head of a powerful Sufi order, who led the Chechen Revolutionary Committee.30

Moscow employed non-Russian troops, many of them Muslims,31 to fight in Central Asia, where Tatar, Bashkir, Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen detachments were pitted against the anti-Bolshevik invaders. Tatar soldiers in the Red Army exceeded 50 percent of the troops on the Eastern and Turkestan fronts of the civil war. In the Red Army in the Caucasus, the ‘Sharia Squadrons’ of the Kabardinian mullah Katkakhanov numbered tens of thousands. The Tartar Bolshevik leader Mir-Said Sultan Galiev wrote, ‘During the civil war one could see villages and even whole tribes of mountain peoples taking part in the battle against the troops of Bicharahov and Denikin on the side of Soviet forces, solely for religious motives: “Soviet power gives us greater religious liberty than the Whites,” they said’.32

Some Muslims drew revolutionary conclusions and joined the Communist parties themselves. Trotsky noted in 1923 that in some of the southern republics as many as 15 percent of party members were believers in Islam. He called them the ‘raw revolutionary recruits who come knocking on our door’. In parts of Central Asia, Muslims made up as much as 70 percent of the Communist Party membership. They brought with them vestigesof their religious customs and beliefs: in the mid-1920s even wives of high-ranking Communist Party members in Central Asia wore veils.33

Historian Adeeb Khaleed notes that, when the Communist Party of Turkestan was formed, ‘all evidence suggests that Jadids flocked to join it as soon as it was possible’.34 However, it had taken a real fight to smash the Russian chauvinists in Central Asia who had jumped on the revolutionary bandwagon after 1917, usurping the slogan of ‘workers’ power’ and turningit against the local, mainly peasant population. For two years the region was cut off from Moscow by the civil war, and these self-styled ‘Bolsheviks’ hada free hand to persecute the indigenous peoples. As a result, the Basmachi movement—an armed Islamic revolt—broke out. Lenin talked about the ‘gigantic, all-historical’ importance of setting things right. In 1920 he ordered ‘sending to concentration camps in Russia all former members ofthe police, military, security forces, administration, etc, who were products of the tsarist era and who swarmed around Soviet power [in Central Asia] because they saw in it the perpetuation of Russian domination’.35 As part of this purge, party policy in Central Asia stated that ‘freedom from religious prejudice’ was a requirement for Russians only: in 1922, more than 1,500 Russians were kicked out of the party in Turkestan because of their Orthodox religious convictions, but not a single Muslim.36

Stalin’s assault on Islam

The Bolsheviks’ efforts to guarantee religious freedom and national rights were constantly undermined by the weakness of Soviet industry and the consequent struggle to meet the population’s most basic needs. Desperate poverty dragged the regime down. Already in 1922 Moscow’s subsidy to Central Asia had to be cut and many state schools had to close. Teachers abandoned their jobs because of the failure to pay salaries. This meant
Muslim schools financed by the community became the only alternative:
‘When you can’t provide bread, you don’t dare take away the substitute,’ said commissar for education Lunacharsky. Sharia courts had all their central funding removed in 1924. But economic factors already obstructed Muslims from bringing their grievances to court. If a girl refused to enter an arranged or polygamous marriage, for example, she had slim chances of being able to feed herself because there were no jobs and nowhere else for her to live.37 In Russia itself the position of women was undermined as unemployment and the state’s inability to afford decent maternity rights pushed women back into the home and resurrected the traditional family.

As it sought to centralise and strengthen its control, the growing Stalinist bureaucracy found that Russian nationalism, stressing the continuity between Stalinism and the tsars, could be a powerful tool for cementing workers of the main national group—the Russians—to the regime. For this reason Stalin increasingly attacked ‘nationalist deviations’ in the non-Russian republics and encouraged a rebirth of Russian chauvinism. He found support for this among the large numbers of former tsarist officials upon whom the Bolsheviks had been forced to rely in the army and throughout the state and economy. In 1922 Lenin warned that the Bolsheviks were about to ‘drown in the sea of Great Russian chauvinist riff-raff like a fly in milk’.

As these tendencies grew stronger from the mid-1920s, the Stalinists began planning an all-out attack on Islam under the banner of combating ‘crimes based on custom’, focusing on ‘women’s rights’ and, in Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, on the veil in particular. The slogan of the campaign was ‘Hujum’, which meant ‘storming’ or ‘assault’ in the languages of Central Asia. After two years of largely ineffective propaganda, the hujum entered its mass-action phase on 8 March 1927—International Women’s Day. At mass meetings women were called upon to unveil: small groups of native women were expected to come to the podium and throw their veils on bonfires.

The author of a recent history of the hujum points out that, in the early years of Bolshevik power, the idea of encouraging—let alone forcing—Muslim women to renounce the veil had barely entered Bolshevik thought:

In sum, the veil’s supposed social dangers and harmful effects were at best a secondary matter before 1926. Indeed, party policy before 1926 was fairly clear that [unveiling] should not be a central focus of Zhenotdel [Women’s Department] attention. In fact, the reverse was more the case—many
Bolsheviks in positions of authority argued vocally against unveiling, contending that it was premature, or worse, a distraction that would only harm party interests.38

The Red Army leader Mikhail Frunze in May 1920 told the 118 delegates at the First Congress of Turkestani Women—all wearing veils—that in the eyes of Soviet authorities their paranji (the heavy horse-hair veil that reached almost to the ground) did not imply anything negative about them or their political outlook. In fact, during the civil war these veils even served a military purpose: the delegates could help liberate Turkestan, he declared, adding that ‘under the paranji beats an honourable heart, under the paranji [one] may faithfully serve the revolution, and the paranji sometimes hides a courageous scout for the Red Army’.39 In 1923 party leaders in Central Asia had cracked down on those who called for unveiling Uzbek women as guilty of a ‘left deviation’. As late as August 1925 the main speaker at an all-Uzbek Zhenotdel meeting portrayed unveiling as positively un-Bolshevik, arguing that ensuring the ‘economic and material security of women is the fundamental path for the solution of the “woman question”.’ A Bolshevik, moreover, had to ‘oppose the Jadids’ understanding of women’s liberation as throwing off the paranji and instead promote the complete political and economic independence of women’.40

In contrast, the hujum proposed to turn Marxist practice on its head: rather than encouraging women to increase their independence by providing opportunities for them to study, work and live outside the traditional family, the hujum set out to persuade them by force of propaganda while outlawing polygamy, under-age marriage and bride price. The campaign’s goal was nothing less than the immediate transformation of sexual relations and family life. Moreover, the party aimed at a swift campaign, despite the almost complete absence from party ranks of indigenous women to lead the effort. In 1926 the membership of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan was 93.5 percent male; in July 1927 there were only 426 Uzbek women in the party, representing under a quarter of the entire female membership. The population of the republic at the time was more than 5 million.41

Inevitably, the hujum was perceived by the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population as alien, a forced imposition of Russian colonisers. As if to emphasise the point, Moscow’s choice of leaders for the hujum were two Russian men, whose records were such that ‘both could be counted among those who had been uneasily referred to by Lenin as Great Russian chauvinists’.42 For bureaucrats like these, the preoccupation with Muslim women had very little to do with high-minded ideas about liberation; they were much more likely to be concerned with women as an under-utilised source of labour.43 The campaign took place against a background of deep racial tensions between the Russian and indigenous populations of Central Asia. As the author of a valuable history of nationalism in this period remarks:

Most conflict, of course, was not violent. More frequent were acts of symbolic violence. Given the conflict over who had the right to consider the Central Asian republics their own, symbolic issues took on a particular importance… By far the most frequently reported act of symbolic violence, however, was Russians rubbing pork fat on the lips of Muslims or forcing them to eat pork.

The voluntarist madness of the hujum, a harbinger of Stalin’s forced collectivisation, was a disaster for women and for the Communist Party.44 First, the unveiling was a failure: the vast majority of women who publicly unveiled re-veiled themselves rapidly—a fact admitted by almost all internal party documents. Then there was a backlash against the campaign, manifesting itself in a wave of fear, hostility and ultimately violence. There was a substantial rise in attendance at prayers and meetings in mosques, widespread withdrawal of Muslim children, especially girls, from Soviet schools, and a rise in resignations of indigenous youth from the Young Communist League. Unveiled women were subjected to growing harassment and shaming in the streets. In some villages women were raped by gangs of youths and a growing number were murdered, often by their own kin. By mid-1928 the violence was full-blown and targeted anyone, male or female, even distantly connected with the ‘cultural revolution’. Thousands perished. When the killers were caught and punished they often became martyrs to the local population.45

The principal historians of the hujum agree that the effect of the assault was to strengthen Islam in the Soviet Union. Far from the six-month effort to eradicate the veil that had been anticipated, it took decades for the party to make good on its promise to eradicate the paranji. Not until the 1950s or 1960s did veils become rare on Central Asian streets. When Uzbekistan broke away from the USSR in 1991, veiling swiftly came back into fashion, without state sanction or encouragement, as a symbol of national independence.46

Theory and practice

When confronted with the Bolsheviks’ record on religious democracy, right wing critics insist that Lenin was merely biding his time, hiding his real intentions while the regime was weak, waiting for the moment to crack down. On the contrary, there was a strong continuity between Lenin’s writings and political practice in this sphere before the revolution and in the years immediately after. The Communist parties began to break away from that tradition only from the mid-1920s as counter-revolutionary reaction set in, decisively turning their backs on Leninism towards the end of the decade.

If the Bolsheviks had been concerned only with tricking religious minorities into supporting Soviet power, there would have been no need to agree to sharia courts and religious schools once the civil war was over. Establishing parallel legal and educational systems took considerable resources away from the central state machine, as did the Bolsheviks’ extensive ‘affirmative action’ programme of giving preference to indigenous people in employment, abandoning the Cyrillic script, resettling Russian colonists and moving entire factories into outlying regions of the former empire. If the Bolsheviks had been hiding a secret intention to crack down on anyone with religious beliefs, it made little sense to allow religious pacifists to escape military service from 1918 onwards.

This is not to say there was no debate within Bolshevik ranks over the approach to religion, which was intimately connected to debates over the national question. Substantial numbers of Bolsheviks, including members of the leadership, disagreed with Lenin and Trotsky, whose policies nonetheless dominated in the early years. These comrades made no distinction between the nationalism of the oppressor and that of the oppressed, or the religion of the oppressor and the oppressed. For them, all religion was an enemy. Very early on Lenin recognised that this abstract opposition to national and religious rights could dovetail with resurgent Russian chauvinism.

The disagreement came to a head after Lenin and Stalin fell out over the national question. The dispute was a matter of fundamental political principle47 and was argued out in detail at a closed meeting of leading Bolsheviks from the outlying republics in Moscow in June 1923. The issue of religion, particularly Islam, ran throughout the discussion. Time after time the ultra-lefts who backed Ordzhonikidze (who was carrying the flag for Stalin’s position) combined their attack on Lenin’s national policies with criticism of the party’s ‘liberal’ approach to religion. For example, Firdyevs, a Crimean Tatar, attacked Khodzhanov, a Turkestani leader, for his talk of creating a ‘living mosque’ in Central Asia alongside the Jadids. And he attacked the Bolshevik insistence that Communist officials in the East should learn local languages as ‘a new form of oppression’ of the national majority, ie the Russians.48

Khodzhanov’s speech makes it clear that he too was influenced by the notion that the party’s pronouncements on the national question were merely ‘external political games’ rather than a matter of principle. The stenographic record shows that Trotsky immediately interrupted to correct him on this score. But Khodzhanov’s remarks on religious policy in Turkestan still reflect the party’s efforts to implement Lenin’s tactics:

With the help of the Jadid liberals, a living mosque is appearing. The concrete struggle with the clerical elements, with the ‘ulemy’ [religious leaders], should be expressed in a struggle to implement the institution of the ‘kazii’ [or kadi—Islamic judges]. Here our Jadids should also help to make sure that these will be liberals, not clerics. We need to establish the institution of official people’s kazii among the Kyrgyz population of Fergana, and this means winning a position of relying on the more left wing elements. Then there is the question of managing and running the waqf properties. In these questions we need an alliance with left elements in the non-party intelligentsia, with the liberals.49

Similarly Akhundov, from Azerbaijan, talked about a campaign to discredit the conservative Islamic elites by persuading ‘the more or less liberal mullahs’ to issue an appeal to Muslims during Ramadan to make donations to help famine victims in the East, rather than the money going as usual to the religious hierarchy. In this way the Azerbaijani Communists hoped to split Khodzhanov’s ‘living mosque’ from the control of traditionalist Islamic leaders.50 In contrast, Elderkhanov from Chechnya pointed to the disastrous consequences of offending religious and national sentiment: ‘Sickly-sweet speeches and smiles to the workers while pulling the mullahs’ beards and exhorting taxes at bayonet point, which resulted in receiving only 5 to 6 percent of the target, excessive military methods, from which the peaceful population suffered while the bandits escaped into the hills—at the end of the day all this brought about hostility to Soviet power’.51

Echoing the right wing critics of the Bolsheviks, there are some on the left today who claim that the Bolsheviks made concessions to national and religious feeling, retreating from their Marxist principles because of the demands of the civil war.52 The historical record makes it clear that this was not what Lenin and Trotsky were doing, and those Bolsheviks who disagreed with them took Stalin’s side in the debate. More important, this lazy notion that the Bolsheviks swallowed their principles because they needed the temporary support of people with whom they disagreed, in effect, rules out the possibility of a united front of any kind. In a united front, revolutionaries agree to fight on a specific issue regardless of broader disagreements with their allies, while maintaining the right to independent organisation and independent politics. The idea that you can only have a united front with people who agree with you, for fear of abandoning Marxist principles, is infant-school materialism.53

Far from Bolshevik support for national rights meaning a blanket demand for separatism, Lenin spelt out the need to appraise the politics of concrete situations in order to maximise the unity of workers of different nationalities in the struggle against their own ruling classes. In his writings on the national question Lenin gave no great attention to religion, but we may safely assume this was because it was so blindingly obvious that freedom of religion was an intrinsic demand of national movements under tsarism.54 In a nutshell, his position was this: combat all oppression on the basis of religious belief? Of course. Fight for any kind of religious development, for ‘religious culture’ in general? Of course not.55 Whether Marxists should actively take up demands for religious freedom depends on the concrete situation, not on abstract slogans.56 The Bolsheviks’ apparent permissiveness towards sharia law reflected a recognition that Islamic conservatism could only be challenged by breaking with Great Russian chauvinist policies, thereby weakening the religious elites’ ability to unite all classes round the mosque and laying the basis for class divisions in Muslim society to come to the surface.

There were often differences between the policies endorsed by the Bolshevik leadership in Moscow and the way inexperienced comrades behaved in distant areas, where chauvinism among Russians or ultra-leftism among indigenous activists caused constant problems.57 Pulling the mullahs’ beards was just as much a rejection of Moscow’s policies as was a Soviet court fining men for drinking alcohol. But religious liberty did not mean freedom for small groups of bigots to do anything they liked in the name of religion: hence the limitations placed on the more extreme interpretations of sharia law. Women of the Zhenotdel paid with their lives for trying to combat the appalling sexism prevalent in isolated Islamic communities.

At the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in September 1920, Zinoviev and Radek issued a call for a ‘holy war’ (gazavat) against Western imperialism. Whether this slogan was opportunist can only be judged by taking account of the political situation in which the call was made. The Bolshevik Party was suffering from a strong streak of ultra-leftism at the time and from chauvinist infiltration in the former colonies. The leadership was also attempting to speak in a language that could be understood by millions. If you are exhorting people to fight and die for Soviet power, and you know that many will see their decision to fight and die in religious terms, there seems little point in pretending that the war will not be partly a religious one for these people. At the same time, Zinoviev and Radek emphasised repeatedly that the war was a class one, too, and would involve fighting reactionary mullahs: ‘You have often heard the call to holy war from your governments, you have marched under the green banner of the Prophet, but all those holy wars were fraudulent, serving only the interests of your self-seeking rulers, and you, the peasants and the workers, remained in slavery and want after these wars… We summon you to a holy war for your own wellbeing, for your own freedom, for your own life!’58

Indeed, when conservative Muslims joined the counter-revolutionary forces attacking the Soviet regime, they were shown no quarter. The imam Najmuddin Gotsinskii led an armed rising against the Bolsheviks in Dagestan in September 1920. His attitude was expressed by his predecessor, Ujun Haji: ‘I am weaving a rope to hang engineers, students, and in general all those who write from left to right’ (ie in Latin or Cyrillic script). The rising was quelled only after major bloodshed when Gotsinskii was captured in 1925.59


Under Lenin and Trotsky the Bolshevik leadership was true to its Marxist understanding that the revolutionary party must be atheist primarily in word, not deed, while the state must be non-religious but not anti-religious. Religious communities were given remarkable freedoms under the revolution, although the religion of the tsarist empire was the most likely to be circumscribed because of its strong links to the former ruling class. Religious believers, including Muslims, who considered themselves revolutionaries were welcomed into the Bolshevik ranks. Non-Communist believers who backed the revolution occupied leading positions in the state apparatus. Some major Muslim organisations joined the Communist parties in their entirety or joined with the Bolsheviks to defend the revolution.

The demands of Muslims for religious freedom were intimately connected with demands for national rights. The Bolsheviks fought alongside Muslims to win those rights from the tsarists and Russian colonialists, but also from the Communist ultra-lefts. These rights were fought for and won as part of the revolution, not granted as concessions by an anti-religious regime waiting for the moment to pounce on believers. The attacks on these rights originated among the Russian chauvinists of the former regime, many of whom were military men who flooded into the state machine after the civil war and gradually came to see Stalin as the leader of the counter-revolution. However, these elements were assisted by strong ultra-left currents among the Bolsheviks themselves who rejected Lenin’s approach and despised talk of national or religious rights. (These comrades overwhelmingly perished under Stalin.)

The Islamic veil was not an issue for the Bolsheviks under Lenin. The mass assault on the veil was launched in 1927 by Russian chauvinists and Stalinists, a frightening harbinger of the calamity of forced collectivisation a few years later. Forced unveiling was a Stalinist policy that turned Leninism on its head. So in standing up for the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab in Europe today, marching alongside Muslims against the occupations of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, defending the right of Muslims to oppose those occupations by force, and joining with left wing Muslims in united front coalitions such as Respect, socialists are upholding a tradition that goes back to Lenin and Trotsky.

1: After the July events Yasmin Alibhai Brown wrote about the ‘pure, hollow evil’ of ‘self-loathing psycho-perverts’, ‘franchised Islamic fascists’, and ‘killers’ with ‘crazy eyes’ (‘Let Us Not Grace these Bombers with a Cause’, Independent, 11 July 2005). Polly Toynbee accused the SWP of being ‘fellow travellers with primitive Islamic extremism’ (‘In the Name of God’, Guardian, 22 July 2005); while Nick Cohen, never short of an abusive epithet, said the liberal left had ‘become the fellow travellers of the psychopathic far-right’ (‘I Still Fight Oppression’, Observer, 7 August 2005).
2: ‘Marxists and Religion: Yesterday and Today’, published in International Viewpoint, March 2005, and available at
3: ‘The Middle East Through the Mirror of Marxism’, talk given at the SWP’s Marxism 2004 event in London, July 2004. Here Achcar argued that Christianity and Islam have a very different genesis, one the product of a persecuted sect and the other of a group that swiftly became rulers of a mighty empire, which meant that the Koran is closed to left wing interpretations: ‘You would have a really hard time giving a radical left interpretation to a lot of what you find in it. That’s why they would say god created you as classes and so therefore social classes are natural and you cannot suppress them. I don’t need to speak about the women issue…it leads to utterly reactionary policies.’ A Marxist approach to Islam, however, starts from material contradictions in society, not from texts such as the Koran.
4: ‘Building on the Success of the London ESF’, IST Discussion Bulletin, January 2005.
5: ‘Socialism and Religion’ (1905). All Lenin’s articles cited here are available at
6: K Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843—emphasis in the original), available at
7: ‘The Attitude of the Workers’ Party to Religion’ (1909).
8: L Trotsky, My Life (Harmondsworth, 1984), ch 6.
9: T Cliff, Lenin vol I: Building the Party (London, 1986), pp84-86.
10: As above, pp157-158.
11: W Husband, Godless Communists: Atheism and Society in Soviet Russia 1917-1932 (Illinois, 2000), pp54-57.
12: P Steeves, Keeping the Faiths: Religion and Ideology in the Soviet Union (New Jersey, 1991), pp85-86. In April 1929, all these activities, which had so facilitated the growth of the Protestant evangelical movement, were banned as Stalin consolidated his power.
13: ‘Russian Baptists and the Military Question, 1918-1929,’ in P Brock and T P Socknat (eds), Challenge to Mars: Essays on Pacifism from 1918 to 1945 (Toronto, 1999), pp21-40.
14: Quoted in P Steeves, as above.
15: W Husband, as above, pp58-59.
16: See W Husband, as above, pp59-66. Under Article 17 of the law ‘concerning religious associations’: ‘Religious societies are prohibited from the following activities: a) creation of funds for mutual aid, cooperatives, industrial associations; and, in general, the use of property placed at their disposal for any other goals than the satisfaction of religious needs; b) providing material support to members; c) organising either special children’s, youth, women’s prayer and other meetings, or general Bible, literature, handicraft, labour, or religious study meetings, groups, circles, departments, as well as organising excursions and children’s playgrounds, opening libraries and reading rooms, and operating sanatoria and medical clinics…’
17: A Bennigsen and C Lemercier-Quelquejay, Islam in the Soviet Union (London, 1967), p78; R Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union (New York, 1954), p77.
18: D T Northrop, ‘Hujum: Unveiling Campaigns and Local Responses in Uzbekistan, 1927’, in D J Raleigh (ed), Provincial Landscapes: Local Dimensions of Soviet Power, 1917-1953 (Pittsburg, 2001), pp125-145.
19: A Khaleed, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkely, 1998).
20: A Khaleed, ‘Nationalizing the Rev-olution in Central Asia: The Transformation of Jadidism, 1917-1920’, in R G Suny and T Martin (eds), A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin (Oxford, 2001).
21: J Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-1923 (London, 1999), p131.
22: F M Mukhametshii, Musul’mane Rossii (Moscow, 2001), pp48-49.
23: The work is mentioned by A Khaleed, in ‘Nationalizing…’, as above. I am grateful to Irina Lester for digging the full text out of the bowels of the British Library for me.
24: For details see ‘The Seeds of National Liberation’, International Socialism 94 (Spring 2002), pp115-142. See also my ‘Levye i prava malykh narodov’, Svobodnaya Mysl’-XX1, no 7, 2004, or at
25: A Avtorkhanov, Imperia Kremlia (Vilnius, 1988), p99.
26: A Park, Bolshevism in Turkestan, 1917-1927 (New York, 1957), p214.
27: This and the previous paragraph taken from: A Park, as above, pp229-234; F M Mukhametshii, as above, pp45-48; V O Bobrovnikov, Musul’mane Severnogo Kavkaza (Moscow, 2002), pp217-234; D T Northrop, Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Soviet Central Asia (New York, 2004), pp77-78, 274-275; G Massell, The Surrogate Proletariat: Moslem Women and Revolutionary Strategies in Soviet Central Asia: 1919-1927 (Princeton, 1974), pp202-203.
28: M Bennigsen Broxup, ‘Russia and the North Caucasus’, in M Bennigsen Broxup (ed), The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance Towards the Muslim World (London, 1992), p7; T Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1929 (New York, 2001), p130; A Park, as above, pp242-243.
29: G Massell, as above; A Bennigsen and S Wimbush, Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union: A Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World (Chicago, 1979); A Khaleed, The Politics…, as above.
30: A Bennigsen and S Wimbush, as above, pp222-223; V O Bobrovnikov, as above, p218; M Bennigsen Broxup, as above, p6; A Avtorkhanov, as above, p99.
31: It is important to note that in much of the literature about the early Bolshevik period, and in much of Bolshevik literature itself, the word ‘Muslim’ is used as a short-hand for nationality or geography, rather than a description of religious belief: even Trotsky talks about ‘Muslim nationalism’ (‘Vospitanie molodezhi i natsional’nyi vopros’, Pravda, 1 May 1923). This reflected notions of the time but also the novelty of nation states in Central Asia. The book by Bennigsen and Wimbush (as above) is seriously marred by this confusion.
32: Mir-Said Sultan Galiev, ‘The Tartars and the October Revolution’ and ‘The Methods of Antireligious Propaganda Among Muslims’ (1921), both reprinted in A Bennigsen and S Wimbush, as above, pp138-157. The Muslim regions of Russia produced some brilliant Communist leaders, such as Sultan Galiev. The son of a teacher, he joined the Bolsheviks in November 1917 at the age of 23, became head of the Muslim Commissariat a few months later and was a prolific writer and orator. We are familiar today with national liberation movements in the Third World that have called themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’: Sultan Galiev is the intellectual father of these ideas. (Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria is fond of quoting him, for example.) Sultan Galiev argued that the national liberation movements of the East were by their very nature anti-imperialist, socialist and revolutionary. His fusion of Marxism, nationalism and Islam was a major departure from Bolshevism, of that there is no doubt, but it came about under specific circumstances and as a result of the defeat of the Russian revolution. He was the first high-profile victim of the rising Stalinist bureaucracy.
33: L Trotsky, ‘Tasks of Communist Education,’ in Problems of Everyday Life (New York, 1994), p118; A Avtorkhanov, as above, p102; D Northrop, ‘Hujum…’, as above.
34: A Khaleed, The Politics…, as above, p288.
35: Quoted in H Carrère d’Encausse, The Great Challenge: Nationalities and the Bolshevik State, 1917-1930 (New York, 1992), p183. Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelqeujay note that ‘if, at the centre, the Soviet government showed itself anxious to attract Muslims of every political persuasion, this was far from being the case on the periphery’. Islam in the Soviet Union, as above, p83.
36: A Park, as above, p209.
37: As above, p242; G Massell, as above, pp196-198, 258-259.
38: D Northrop, Veiled Empire…, as above, p78.
39: As above, pp80-81 (emphasis in original).
40: As above, p81. Before the revolution it had been the Jadidist reformers who had argued for unveiling as part of a general upgrading in women’s status.
41: D Northrop, ‘Hujum…’, as above, pp129 and footnote 11.
42: G Massell, as above, pp227-228.
43: As above, pp165-171.
44: It is a pity that Richard Stites, one of the foremost historians of women’s liberation in Russia, fails to see the hujum as part of Stalin’s ‘sexual Thermidor’. R Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930 (Princeton, 1978), p340.
45: G Massell, as above, pp275-284; D Northrop, ‘Hujum…’, as above.
46: D Northrop writes: ‘The hujum’s targeting of the veil in some ways only strengthened its appeal, if anything only expanding the number of veiled women in the short term…’—‘Hujum…’, as above, p145.
47: I have explained this in detail in International Socialism 94, as above.
48: Tainy Natsional’noi Politiki TsK RKP: Stenograficheskii Otchet Sekret-nogo IV Soveshchaniia TsK RKP, 1923g (Moscow, 1992), pp256-257.
49: As above, p113. Khodzhanov’s speech was singled out for praise by Zinoviev in his summing up at the end of the four-day conference (p223).
50: As above, pp162-163.
51: As above, p197.
52: See, for example, Hannah Sell’s article ‘Islam and Socialism’, in Socialist Today, no 87 (October 2004), or the infinitely weaker articles by G Byrne in Solidarity, nos 46, 47, 48 and 50 (2004).
53: ‘Behind this seemingly revolutionary fear of “rapprochement” there really lurks a political passivity…an illusion of serious political struggle’—L Trotsky, ‘On the United Front’, in The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol 2 (New York, 1974), p96.
54: For example, Lenin mentions the Polish peasants’ ‘struggle for nationality, religion, and “Polish” land’ (‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, 1913), and early capitalism’s drive to unite territories into nation states by sweeping away ‘all the old, medieval, caste, parochial, petty-national, religious and other barriers’ (‘The Rights of Nations to Self-Determination’, 1914). Trotsky talked of ‘Muslim nationalism’ (see footnote 31 above).
55: Paraphrasing Lenin, ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’.
56: See, for example, the debate on faith schools between Nick Grant and Ger Francis in the SWP’s Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletins, nos 2 and 3, 2005.
57: See footnote 35.
58: ‘Manifesto of the Congress to the Peoples of the East,’ in Baku: Congress of the Peoples of the East (New Park Publications, 1977), p172. The congress was beset with all sorts of problems, but there is no space to go into them here. NB In 1922 the 4th Congress of the Communist International corrected its policy adopted at the 2nd congress and endorsed temporary alliances with pan-Islamism against imperialism—E H Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923, vol 3 (Harmondsworth, 1971), p476.
59: M Bennigsen Broxup, ‘The Last Ghazawat: The 1920-1921 Uprising’, in Bennigsen Broxup (ed), The North Caucasus Barrier, as above, pp112-145. Bennigsen Broxup’s account suggests that ultra-left policies by local Bolsheviks added to support for Gotsinskii’s uprising.