Saving a Tatar Communist From Stalinist and Cold-War Historiographies: The Political Economy of Nations

In Fall 2020, our friend and colleague Stephen Cohen passed away. At the time, we honored him with a post containing testimonials from past and current recipients of the Stephen Cohen Fellowship, which funds graduate education for master’s students in the Department of Russian & Slavic Studies at NYU, and the Cohen-Tucker Fellowship, which supports dissertation research in the field of Russian Studies. This semester, we are publishing a series focusing on Cohen and Cohen-Tucker Fellows’ experiences and research in the REEES field. This is the fifth. Past installments in the series may be found here.

Yolanda Zhang is a graduate student in NYU Journalism’s Global & Joint Program Studies.

Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev (1892-1940) was a communist, an anti-colonial revolutionary, and a devout Muslim. Born in the Bashkir village of Elembet’evo in Ufa, he was raised in a family of mixed socioeconomic backgrounds: his mother a member of the nobility, and his father a peasant following Ismail Gasprinskii’s movement of reformist Muslim thought, jadidism. Joining the revolution in 1917, Sultan-Galiev saw Bolshevism as a gateway to freeing colonized lands.

Today, his name has been obscured by two clashing, yet mutually reinforcing narratives. On the one hand, despite years of working with his Georgian colleague Josef Stalin in the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities (Narkomnats), he fell out with the dictator over the question of ethnic autonomy in 1923. His subsequent ostracization, culminating in the persecution of so-called Sultangalievites [sultangalievshchina], led him to be remembered — in both the Soviet Union and the “Third World” — as a bourgeois nationalist of pan-Islamic and pan-Turkic deviations. He was imprisoned twice, in 1928 and 1937, and eventually executed in 1940 in Moscow.

On the other hand, in the West, Sultan-Galiev’s Tatar nationalism was romanticized and celebrated as the Eastern minority voice against the Soviet regime’s Russo-chauvinism. In the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War and during the reification of the East-West civilizational divide within academic discourse, the scholar Alexandre Bennigsen and his students amplified Sultan-Galiev’s idea that the revolution can start in Asia rather than Europe (or, what is called the “Eastern strategy”). In doing so, the Bennigsen school reduced Sultan-Galiev into an ethnonationalist figurehead, rebranding the Tatar communist as a token nativist theorist of an Eastern descent with an ideologically simplistic philosophy.

What is missing from both the Stalin- and Cold-War-era framings of Sultan-Galiev’s thought is his intricate political-economic theory of world capitalism, which lies at the heart of his “Eastern strategy.” For Sultan-Galiev, “nation” never meant only one thing. Instead, his analysis is deeply rooted in the historical process of nation creation and situation within global capitalism.

In his 1925 essay “Theses on the Foundations of the Socioeconomic, Economic and Cultural Development of the Turkic peoples of Asia and Europe,” for example, Sultan-Galiev deconstructs nations as contingent formations under the movements of global capital and technology. Proposing the module of a “system of international socio-legal relations” (система международных социально-правовых отношений), Sultan-Galiev fundamentally sees nations as engaged in a dynamic socioeconomic struggle, in the same way that individuals position themselves in class struggle within a given society. He then divides nations into two camps: those that possess the means of production, communication, and technology, and those that do not. “The haves made up 20-25% of the humanity, dominating the world’s resources and exercising the ‘right’ to exploit the have-nots through economic, political and cultural slavery,” his manuscript claims.

As he draws the border of the East and the West not according to Bennigsenian “civilizational” lines, but the gradual distribution of technology and the means of production throughout history, he identifies “‘black’ and ‘yellow’ continents” (528) as loci of upheaval. The toilers of the East rise up against their European masters, who control international communications and military strategies. Echoing V. I. Lenin’s theory of imperialism (1916), Sultan-Galiev’s “Eastern strategy” suggests that Europe’s parasitic upper-strata proletarians (or “labor aristocrats”) also benefit from an extractivist world system. Foreshadowing Andre Gunder Frank’s tracing of the origins of world economic systems to precapitalist trades and production in the East (1990), Sultan-Galiev cites the Turko-Mongols as belonging to the same genealogy of socialism.

The revolution does not have to start with the European proletariat, insists Sultan-Galiev. In fact, colonized peoples lead the reclamation of the means of production from Western finance capital because their underdevelopment is not only maintained, but also reinforced by the West’s extractions.

The existence and development of the modern material culture of the peoples of the West is based not only on the preservation of slave-owning and bonded relations to the peoples of the East. But it is also based on the delay of the development of the domestic productive forces of the latter and the suppression of the growth of their material culture.

In what he calls a dynamic analysis of world-system dependency, Sultan-Galiev fundamentally deconstructs the nation as a unit of study, since the ontology of Western nations rests precisely on an economic basis of national “others.” Sultan-Galiev is thus able to explain the aggressive policies the West imposed on Asian and African countries when it came to raw materials as a means to lower production costs abroad and win anarchical capitalist market competitions at home. These ideas naturally lead to his conviction that the realization of a truly communist society must start not in Europe, but in Asia. Geography matters, not because of local bourgeois nationalism in Asia (in an “Easternization” of socialism, to borrow Bennigsen’s term), but because of the class component that underlies the world system itself.