28 February 2018

John Sexton: The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East

Interviewed by Selim Nadi

Congress of Toilers of Far East 1922

A French version of this interview was originally published at

  • Could you please tell us about the origins of the Congress of the Toilers of the Far East (1922)? Why was this Congress much smaller than the Baku Congress (1920)? How can one explain that there were around 37 Nationalities in Baku but that the majority of the delegates during the Congress of the Toilers of the Far East came only from four countries (China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia)?


There were two partially conflicting aspects of the congress. It was a revolutionary follow-up to the Baku Congress and the Second Congress of the Comintern; but also a diplomatic counter-initiative to the Washington Naval Conference. (The Washington meeting had the Far East on its agenda but Soviet Russia was excluded despite its clear interests in the region). The two aspects roughly corresponded to the concerns of the Communist International and the Soviet government. The People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs initially hoped to mount a rival international conference by persuading the Chinese government to attend. This was not an entirely unrealistic aim. There was enormous resentment against the imperialist powers in China, as shown by the May 4th movement of 1919. There was also the huge March uprising of the same year in Korea. With China, Mongolia, the Far Eastern Republic, as well as the Korean government-in-exile attending, the rival conference would have had some credibility. As we know, he Soviets later allied with Sun Yat-sen, but they had also tried to win over other warlords, including Wu Peifu, who was China’s effective leader around the time of the Congress. But when China decided not to attend, the idea of a rival conference was abandoned and the congress took the form of a gathering of revolutionaries, both communist and nationalist. Nevertheless, the speeches by Zinoviev and others still targeted the Washington Conference as a gathering of imperialists who, he said, had formed a temporary and unstable alliance to jointly exploit China and other countries in the region.

The Far East Congress was much smaller than the Baku Congress as you say. Just 150 or so delegates came, compared with around 2000 in Baku. The Baku congress took place while the civil war was still raging – the city had only been in Soviet hands a few months. By the time the Far East Congress took place, the military situation was much better for the Soviets. Furthermore, the diplomatic climate had eased, Soviet Russia had been invited to an international conference in Genoa. The foreign ministry had cooled on the idea of the Congress. Chicherin even urged Lenin to hold it behind closed doors. So the changed diplomatic climate probably led the Soviets to play down the Congress. They could no doubt have easily mobilized a couple of thousand delegates from among the large number of Koreans and Chinese serving in the Red Army or working and farming in Russia. As far as the delegates who travelled from abroad were concerned, getting there was a long, risky and unpleasant journey through the Siberian winter. It was originally planned to hold the Congress in Irkutsk and many of the delegates spent weeks there waiting for it to start. The whole event seems to have been quite badly organized. The delegates were extremely relieved when the venue was moved to Moscow. They did get to see the real Russia, though – and conditions in the aftermath of civil war and famine were absolutely dreadful. 

  • Why was it important that these four countries attend to the Congress? Why was there only one delegate from Indonesia and only one from India while both countries were under colonial rule from the Nederland and from Britain? Why was Japan so important for the Comintern? Which role did Japanese anarchists played during this Congress?


On why there were so few delegates from India and the Dutch East Indies, I think in the case of India it was because the focus was on the Far East and India was not considered part of the region. There were actually two Indian delegates, M N Roy and Abani Mukherji, both of whom went on to play very important roles in the Communist movement. Why there was only one delegate from Indonesia is less clear since the Indonesian Communist Party went on to become a huge organization, and even at this time was the biggest party in East Asia. Perhaps it was because as Zinoviev admitted, at the time the Comintern knew very little about the Far East – as it was then called. It should be remembered however, that the delegate who attended, Semaun, was the leader of the party. Semaun was the protégé of Henk Sneevliet (also know as Maring), a very significant figure in labour movement history. A socialist with strong anti-imperialist views, Sneevliet emigrated to the Dutch East Indies where he saw the radical potential of Islamic resistance movements and sent local socialists into them to win over their supporters – a tactic that was remarkably successful. Overall, however, the focus of the Congress was very much on China and Korea, victims of imperialism, and Japan, the local upstart imperialist power that was one of their oppressors.   

Japan was important to the Bolsheviks because it was an industrial country with a large proletariat. It had followed a course of development similar to Europe, being one of the few countries outside that area to have passed through a genuine feudal epoch. The Meiji Restoration had ushered in capitalism so Japan had followed the classical stages of development laid down by Marx, and according to Marxist theory the conditions were present for a socialist revolution, whereas, for most of the Bolsheviks, the most that could be expected in the other countries of the east was a democratic anti-imperialist revolution.

There were other reasons of course. Japan was, to put it mildly, a huge security threat to the Soviet state. It had tens of thousands of troops in Siberia and was supporting the most vicious, and, in some cases, outright insane leaders among the Whites, such as Ataman Grigory Semenov and his lieutenant Baron von Ungern-Sternberg. Japan had developed rapidly into an imperialist power and a particularly rapacious one. It had colonised Korea, was carving out areas of China, and was now a direct and immediate threat to Soviet Russia. It had by far the largest contingent among the Interventionists fighting the Bolsheviks in the civil war and it barely bothered to disguise its territorial designs on Siberia and Mongolia.

Zinoviev, by the way, correctly predicted that rivalry between Japan and the United States would lead to world war, although he was a decade or more out on the timing. Soviet Russia was already trying to exploit this rivalry by canvassing American support for Japanese withdrawal, through the offices of the Far Eastern Republic, a short-lived buffer state allied with Moscow that had been created in the chaos of civil war.

It was natural for the Bolsheviks to look to the most radical elements in the young Japanese labour movement when putting together the kernel of a communist party. The left of the movement was dominated by the anarchists, whose leader was Osugi Sakae. He was initially attracted by the Comintern, but the events of 1921 – it seems the introduction of the NEP in particular – led him to distance himself from the Communists.One of the anarchist delegates, Kato (Yoshida Hajime), announced his conversion to Communism at the Congress but changed his mind when he got back to Japan. So the attempt to win over the anarchists doesn’t seem to have been particularly successful.

  • What role did the Japanese victory over Russia (1905) play in the building of Modern States in Asia?


Certainly the Japanese victory over Russia inspired nationalists across Asia. Social Darwinism was a popular ideology among the imperialists, but the war demonstrated that the “white man” could be defeated and that the “yellow race” was not doomed to remain the sick man of Asia. Many nationalists from China and Korea and elsewhere across Asia were attracted to the Japanese model. Sun Yat-sen established the forerunner of the Guomindang, the Tongmenghui, in Tokyo in 1905, with Japanese victory assured. The Tongmenghui’s founding conference took place in the home of the notorious Japanese ultra-rightist and nationalist Uchida Ryohei who, ironically, later drew up plans for the conquest and exploitation of China. Japanese imperialism continued to use anti-imperialist rhetoric to justify its own expansionism. (They weren’t alone of course, the Americans also liked to paint their colonial adventures, e.g. in Cuba and the Philippines, as liberations). As we know many Asian nationalists initially took the Japanese side in the Second World War. The Japanese wanted to insert a racial equality into the Versailles Treaty at the end of the First War, but the British White Dominions and Woodrow Wilson, who was an old-fashioned Southern racist, opposed it

  • How were both Congresses (Baku and the Far East Congress) different regarding the type of participants? In the Introduction of the forthcoming book you edited for the Historical Materialism Book Series, you wrote that the Congress of the Toilers of the Far East “attracted authentic overseas nationalist and communist organizations whereas ad hoc groups from Soviet territory were the majority in Baku”. Could you please explain this point?


The Baku Congress had the characteristics of a mass rally and an appeal to world public opinion. The Soviets made a determined effort to build it and attract as many participants as possible. They sent propaganda trains through the areas they controlled to drum up support. By contrast, as I said just now, Soviet foreign minister Chicherin advised the government to play down the Far East Congress and hold it behind closed doors. He wanted to avoid any suggestion of a link between the Soviet government and the congress. The developments between 1920 and 1922 explain the differences. At the time of the Baku Congress, Soviet Russia was still in a desperate fight for survival against the Whites and their great power backers.  Moscow had nothing to lose by fiercely denouncing imperialism and British imperialism in particular. Around this time that M N Roy, supported by Lenin and Trotsky, tried to organise an invasion of British India by jihadists. By the time the Far East Congress was convened, the Soviets had effectively won the civil war, but had suffered terrible setbacks – the famine on the Volga, the Kronstadt uprising and so on. They had introduced the NEP and were trying to re-establish trade and diplomatic links with the capitalist world. Russia had been invited to the Genoa Conference and did not want to jeopardise this opportunity. They also wanted to get the Japanese out of Siberia and hoped for at least tacit Americans support for this aim. It should be remembered that while the Far East Congress was denouncing the Washington Conference, a delegation from the Far Eastern Republic was asking for admission to it. They weren’t allowed in but they made quite effective propaganda during their time in Washington.

On the issue of the delegates, perhaps authentic isn’t quite the right word – I didn’t mean to suggest the delegates to the Baku Congress weren’t real or worthy, but perhaps the majority of them were mobilized for this one event as a demonstration of support for the Soviets. The delegates to the Far East Congress were on the whole full time political activists in groups that went on to become the core of Communist parties in the region. The discussions at the congress therefore affected the political direction of these parties. This was particularly the case for the Chinese Communist Party, as attested by Zhang Guotao, who was one of its leaders at the time. There were many prominent Koreans there including Kim Kyu-sik who had been Korea’s (unrecognized) envoy to the Paris Peace Conference and Yŏ Unhyŏng who headed a short-lived People’s Government at the end of WWII. (This generation of Korean leaders became largely irrelevant after the Soviets installed the appalling Kim dynasty.) One could say the Congress of the Far East was a gathering of party leaders rather than a mass rally. Which is not to say that there were not many prominent leaders in Baku.

  • To what extend was the Congress of the Toilers of the Far East a reaction to the Washington Conference?


I think I answered this above. It was certainly a response to the Washington Conference as evidenced by the preparations for the Congress and also the content of the speeches. The Congress was called as a counter-conference, because Soviet Russia had been excluded from the Washington gathering. But by the time it took place, relations with the western powers had improved to the extent that Moscow wanted to play down its significance and its public profile. So its other aspect, that of a gathering of revolutionary leaders, came to the fore. Some have seen in the Congress the first manifestation of what became the global confrontation between Washington and Moscow, the United States and the USSR.  But you could equally say that while Zinoviev was denouncing imperialism at the Congress, Soviet Russia was pursuing a policy that would be later known as détente.                                                                                                                             

  • You wrote that because of the youth of a lot of delegates (“several dozen were in their teens to mid-twenties”), there speeches were very radical, could you please come back on the strategic debates raised at this Congress? What role did the Bolsheviks (Zinoviev, Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin) played? Could you please come back on Safarov’s report The National-Colonial Question and the Communist Attitude thereto? To what extend was it a contribution to the Comintern’s strategy in his relations with nationalist movements?


None of the top leaders spoke at the Congress, unless you count Zinoviev. There is a photograph that seems to show Bukharin observing one of the sessions. Lenin met with several of the delegates as did Trotsky, and presumably Stalin, but in private, presumably following Chicherin’s advice that the government should keep its distance from the Congress itself. Lenin was very keen to see cooperation between communists and local nationalists. He had already given money to the Korean Provisional Government although some of it was diverted by radicals among the Communists. Korean politics suffered terribly from factionalism and personal rivalries.

I think Safarov was effectively reiterating the positions adopted at the Second Congress of the Comintern – that is to say, there should be a united front of Communists and nationalists against imperialism. He set out the conditions for such a united front very clearly. The nationalists could not be just anyone. He did not want to see the Communists allying with bourgeois talking shops, but only with genuine anti-imperialists. He also insisted that a clear distinction be kept between the Communists and their nationalist allies. These were simply the orthodox positions of the Second Congress, but Safarov occasionally came across as rather dogmatic – or at least was seen as such by some historians. I don’t think this is entirely fair, but he was rather hard on the Chinese Guomindang delegate who tried to argue that there was no real difference between Soviet and Guomindang policy and that therefore there was no need for a separate Communist Party. The delegate was a rather shallow fellow who, after trying to pose as a radical in Moscow, later opposed Sun Yat-sen’s alliance with the Soviets. So on the whole Safarov was right, even if he sounded undiplomatic at times. 

Some of the younger delegates wanted to move straight to a socialist revolution and were not keen on allying with nationalists who in their own countries were often more or less their enemies. The same debate had also taken place at the Second Comintern Congress where M N Roy opposed Lenin from the left before a compromise was worked out.   

  • What was the Soviet position on the issue of Mongolia (especially on the relations between Mongolia and China)?


It’s fair to say the Soviet position on Mongolia was complex and that the leadership was divided on the issue. Mongolia owed its precarious independence – declared by its theocratic ruler after of the 1911 Chinese revolution – to Tsarist Russia. Chinese public opinion was – and to some extent remains – that Mongolia is rightfully part of China, despite obvious linguistic and cultural differences and irrespective of the wishes of the Mongolians.  Some Russians –  Joffe in particular – thought that by backing a couple of million Mongolians against 400 million Chinese, the Soviets were, at best, making a strategic mistake, from the point of view of world revolution, and, at worst, rehashing Tsarist expansionism. The compromise reached was that Moscow supported, and ultimately guaranteed the existence of, the Mongolian government, but acknowledged Chinese sovereignty in theory. This position was reiterated in the Sun-Joffe agreement of 1924. The issue was settled in 1945 when Chiang Kai-shek reluctantly recognized Mongolian independence as part of a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. Although Chiang later repudiated the treaty when in exile in Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China continued to recognize Mongolian sovereignty. Many Chinese people, no matter how irrationally, still regard Mongolia as part of China and see Genghis Khan as a Chinese hero. Some Chinese nationalists blame Mao for “giving Mongolia away”. China still, of course, controls Inner Mongolia and there is sporadic unrest there.

  • While only 7 from 150 delegates were women, the issue of women rights was raised during the Congress: to what extend was it an important issue for the speakers? In your introduction you quote several examples : “The Chinese trade unionist Deng Pei denounced the exploitation of female labour in China”, “Solomon Lozovsky, head of the Red International of Trades Unions, condemned reactionary trade unions that excluded women workers”, “Katayama Sen prepared a report on “Women’s industrial condition in the Far East countries” at the request of Alexandra Kollontai”, etc. … Did all these speeches on the woman issue lead to any political conclusions?


Well certainly several delegates raised the issue. We have to remember the period during which the Congress was held. Women were only just getting the right to vote in the west, although New Zealand was far ahead of everywhere else. The Russian Provisional Government gave women the vote in the summer of 1917. But East Asia was very far behind. The representative of the Russian women’s movement, Klavdia Nikolaeva, came very close to berating the delegates for their backwardness on women’s rights. You mention only male speakers but apart from Nikolaeva, the Chinese feminist anarchist Huang Bihun and the Korean women Kim Won’gyŏng and Kwon Aera made very strong speeches. Huang Bihun was the most prominent of the women delegates. She had been a political associate of Chen Duxiu, the first leader of the Chinese Communist Party, and was a well-known activist in Canton. Her status was recognized by Zinoviev, who introduced her with great warmth to the final rally in Petrograd. Tragically, she was executed by the Guomindang – actually by a close associate of Sun Yat-sen – not long after she returned to China. The charge was plotting to assassinate Sun, but it was probably trumped up. She had made the mistake of supporting Sun’s more democratic rival, Chen Jiongming, when he temporarily ousted Sun from Canton. Incidentally, most of the local Communists supported Chen, in defiance of Comintern instructions. Sun is widely regarded as the father of modern China but he was in many respects just another warlord, albeit a “super warlord”, as Henk Sneeevliet described him. As regards the male trade unionists Deng Pei, Lozovsky and Katayama Sen; they knew that huge numbers of the new proletariat in Japan and other countries of East Asia were women and it was essential for the Communist movement to win their support. And of course they sincerely wanted to help the women workers. The conditions women worked in were deplorable. They lived in dormitories rather like many Chinese workers today. What was worse in those days was that TB was endemic and many died young.

As to what effect these speeches had, take a look at the Chinese leadership today. It’s almost exclusively male and the situation has been getting worse since the Chinese Communist Party reintroduced capitalism and reheated Confucian ideas to cling onto power. I believe there has never been a female member of the standing committee of the politburo – the top leadership body. There have been influential women at lower levels, but the idea of a woman general secretary still appears unthinkable. Obviously it’s the same in North Korea while the South has a female president. Why communist systems stick to jobs for the boys, in contradiction to their official ideology, is a big question I’m not qualified to answer.

  • Did this Congress have an influence in the later development of Maoism?


I think so, definitely. Wittfogel claimed that Mao really hadn’t come up with anything particularly new and I tend to agree with him. The role of the peasants in the colonial revolution had already been set out very clearly by Lenin and others. It was reiterated at the Second Comintern Congress and of course at the Congress of the Toilers of the Far East. There were other aspects of Maoism of course, such as whipping up destructive mass movements, that the Congress had little or nothing to do with. 

  • Why did the Comintern fail in its attempt to build a strong Communist Party in Japan and in Korea?


Partly this was general incompetence of the local leaders and partly the fact that the Japanese had a very effective secret police. There were some obvious political mistakes such as the decision to split the Japanese trade union movement. There were also some comic opera incidents such as the Korean who was arrested for drunken brawling in possession of a party membership list. The Korean party grew out of Koreans in exile in Russia and China who were often in armed resistance groups to Japanese rule or in the Red Army. Korean opposition politics was notoriously factional. There were effectively two Communist parties – the Shanghai faction and the Irkutsk faction. They were both involved in the armed struggle against Japan and had their own militias. In June 1921, a little over six months before the congress, there was a notorious clash between the two sides in Siberia. Hundreds were killed and wounded. There was also a great deal of skulduggery about money, in particular a large sum that Lenin had intended for the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai. The details of these disputes are very complex.

  • How can one explain that the attempt of a united front between Chinese Communists and Chinese nationalists did not succeed?


Well the nationalists from the start were anti-communist and only agreed to the alliance with Soviet Russia as a marriage of convenience in order to gain arms and funding. It was an alliance of adversaries. Sun was quite explicit about this, although he is an official hero in the PRC today. The Soviet point of view – especially Stalin’s point of view – was that the Communist Party was just a groupuscule that wouldn’t have much purchase on its own. What they wanted was a counterweight to the Japanese in East Asia so they backed Sun – initially on the recommendation of Henk Sneevliet.  There are some – my old friend Sasha Pantsov is one – who think that Stalin was playing a clever game to infiltrate and take over the Guomindang. My own view is that even if this was the case, the game wasn’t very clever. It reached the level of absurdity when the Communists, having been massacred by both the Right and “Left” Guomindang, staged adventurist uprisings – under the banner of the Guomindang. The Chinese Communists were at the outset reluctant allies of the nationalists. Sneevliet browbeat them into it and they resented him for that. They felt they could and should have been building their own party rather than providing the foot soldiers for what they saw as little more than a clique around Sun Yat-sen. Perhaps they underestimated Sun’s national profile and the depth of support for him. In any case the way in which the alliance was organized was entirely at odds with the strategy set out by Safarov at the Far East Congress. He was very clear that the alliance should be between separate groups who openly recognized their differences, retained complete independence, and spoke in their own voices to the masses. He would have had no truck with what really happened – which was Communists effectively disguising themselves as nationalists. And as I said above Safarov was reiterating the policy laid down by the Second Comintern Congress. Later, Stalin and Bukharin adopted the fantasy that the Guomindang was a “bloc of four classes” or even some kind of Chinese equivalent of soviets. Some of the foreign Communists who directed Comintern efforts in China, such as Borodin and M N Roy, seem to have been out of their depth and had no real idea of the sort of people they were dealing with among the nationalists. Sneevliet played a negative role overall by encouraging the Communists to submerge themselves in the Guomindang, but I think this stemmed from an honest belief in entryism as a tactic. He wanted to repeat his manoeuver within the Islamic movement in Indonesia. But history repeated itself this time as tragedy.