Isaac Deutscher 1947
Source: The Times, 17 and 18 December 1947. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. This article was written in the aftermath of the conference of the British, French, Soviet and US foreign ministers held in London from 25 November to 15 December 1947 in order to discuss the position of Germany within the postwar world; it concluded without any decisions having been made and without any date being fixed for a resumption of talks.
The collapse of the London conference adds importance to long-standing speculations on the methods and motives of Soviet diplomacy. No international problem in recent years has been as difficult to define as the role of ideological principles and considerations in the relations between Russia and the Western powers. The setting up of a rump Comintern, under the auspices of the Soviet Communist Party, has complicated the question even more. During the war it was widely taken for granted that the old antagonism between the Western democracies and Communist Russia had been lived down to such an extent that it would not mar the making of the peace. In the last two or three years that hope has been giving way to the opposite conviction that a conflict between the two systems will dominate the international scene for a long time to come and that there can be little hope for their really peaceful, let alone friendly, coexistence.
This conviction has gained much more ground on the other side of the Atlantic than here. An authoritative American writer, who does not belong to the most extreme anti-Russian school, summed it up earlier in the year when he wrote that the Soviet Union must be regarded ‘as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena’. He defined the objective of American policy as ‘increasing the strains under which Soviet policy must operate’ and promoting ‘tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of the Soviet power’.
Those who share this view base it on the premise that the rulers of the Soviet Union are committed by their doctrines to work for the disintegration of the Western world and the spread of Communism. This view can be supported by a formidable array of quotations from the writings of Lenin and Stalin. Both have repeatedly declared their hostility towards liberal capitalism and their belief in the inevitability of a final clash between the capitalist West and the Soviet system. These declarations, it is argued, offer the most direct and reliable clue to the understanding of present Soviet policies, just as – mutatis mutandis – Hitler’s Mein Kampf provided a good guide to the aggressive intentions of Nazism.
World Communism: What real relevance have these professions of Soviet faith to current Soviet policies? To what extent do the principles enunciated by Lenin or Stalin 30 or 20 years ago still determine the Soviet attitude today? Nearly all Stalin’s statements on international revolution date from the early period of his rise to power. What in particular is the connexion between the faith in world Communism and the doctrine of Socialism in One Country which has also been associated with Stalin’s name?
The validity of certain of the essential tenets of Leninism continues to be recognised in Moscow without any reservation. One of them is the view that the capitalist economy will not be able to overcome or control the instability caused by the anarchy of its productive forces. The New Deal in the United States and the various attempts at planned economy in other Western countries have done nothing to persuade the ideologues of Soviet Russia that this view is erroneous. The one prominent Soviet spokesman who admitted that ‘organised capitalism’ was possible in theory was the late Bukharin but his opinion has been denounced as heresy and has never influenced the thinking of the younger Soviet generation about the future of European or American economy.
In the long run, so the Leninist-Stalinist believes, capitalist civilisation is doomed. In the short run, the present prosperity of the United States will be upset in the normal course of the trade cycle now aggravated by the disastrous shrinkage in the purchasing power of European and other countries. The next American slump, which in the view of the eminent Soviet economist Professor Varga cannot be far off, will inflict mortal wounds on the nations which have tied themselves to the chariot of ‘dollar imperialism’, even before they have had time to get back to their feet after the war.
The expectation of an early and worldwide slump is axiomatic. But it is doubtful whether Moscow can now be sure that Communism will be the beneficiary of the slump. There was a time when it was tacitly assumed in the Comintern that widespread economic depression must lead almost automatically to Communist revolution. This was the illusion entertained by the Sixth Congress of the Comintern which met in Moscow in 1928. It was exploded in the great depression which resulted in the rise of Nazism and similar movements akin to it all over Europe.
The lesson is still too fresh to have been forgotten in Moscow. It has definitely confirmed in the minds of Russia’s leaders disbelief in the revolutionary capacity of the European proletariat, a disbelief which, in a milder form, had already coloured Stalin’s doctrine of Socialism in One Country in 1924. While a depression may offer Russia such important immediate advantages as better terms of trade and perhaps fresh scope for diplomatic manoeuvre, it is also, as the Russians see it, likely to be fraught with such explosive possibilities as a new upsurge of reaction and Fascism and aggressive militarism in the West.
In the early days of the Soviet regime its leaders saw in the October revolution the model for Communist upheaval all over the world. They believed in the imminence of that upheaval with an optimism that strikes the reader of Lenin’s writings today as extremely naïve. There can be little doubt that Stalin and his entourage, on the other hand, have long accepted the view that the October revolution was a unique, non-recurring event. This view can never be openly avowed in Moscow. Such a confession would go against the grain of Leninist orthodoxy and Stalinism has been committed to the formal observance of that orthodoxy in much the same way as the churches are committed to holy writ. But in practical politics it is not the inspired orthodoxy but the appraisal of what are believed to be the facts of the international situation that dictate the policies of the Soviet leaders.
History’s Long Trend: The view that capitalism is predestined to be superseded by socialism or Communism is now entertained by the Soviet leaders in much the same way as it has been entertained by most leaders of ‘reformist’ socialism. The process is seen as history’s long trend, which, though it may indeed be much shortened by the determined action of men, is similar to the slow and painful process by which the feudal order was superseded, over the lifetime of many generations, by modern industrial society. It is precisely this deferring of hope that has accounted for Stalin’s categorical insistence on the thesis that the full edifice of a Communist society can be built within the limits of a single state.
In expounding his theory of Socialism in a Single Country, Stalin expressed the hope that the progress of socialist construction in Russia would by itself induce the working classes of other nations to imitate the example. The hope has not been altogether groundless, but the Soviet leaders are also aware of the relatively narrow limits within which the achievements of the Soviet regime have so far seemed to be worthy of imitation to most European nations. The Soviets have not succeeded in securing for their people a standard of living comparable with that of the Western European nations; the war was a grave setback. The material achievements of the Soviet Union cannot be made the basis for any really European-wide ‘revolutionary offensive’.
Two World Wars: It is now seen that economic depression is not after all an unfailing stimulus to revolution. There is the same disillusionment among revolutionaries about the effects of war. Until recently war was regarded as a much more powerful revolutionising factor than depression itself. Behind every major modern war loomed the shadow of revolution. The Soviet state itself had its origin in the frustration and urge for radical change engendered by an unfortunate war. But compared with the revolutionary aftermath of the First World War, the effects of the Second must seem almost insignificant to the Marxian observer. In 1918 Europe east of the Rhine was in insurrection. Under the impact of popular risings thrones toppled, old regimes broke up, old states disappeared from the map, new ones took their place. In 1945-46 there was no such story. The working classes of Europe did not rise. The Fascist regimes were crushed chiefly by the armoured divisions and air forces of invading armies.
Conservatives may still be alarmed by the social chaos on the Continent and elsewhere. They may suspect that the chaos is deliberately stirred by Soviet hands. They can see the leading part played by disciplined Communists. There can be no certainty about future courses, especially if a new phase of international relations now begins, but the future historian, taking a more detached view, may well be astonished at the comparative mildness of the revolutionary movement in view of the almost incredible social unsettlement caused by the war.
The article yesterday analysed the general reasons why the philosophy of Socialism in a Single Country continues to determine the Soviet attitude after the Second World War. Even so, it is undeniable that recent Soviet policies have constituted a departure from Socialism in One Country. At a moment when the relations between the Soviet Union and the Western powers have – apart from the promised Anglo-Russian trade agreement – reached a new stage of deadlock, it is important to try to define the nature and the range of that departure.
Students of the Comintern’s history will smile at the suggestion that the Soviet leaders or the leaders of the Communist parties in Western Europe have gone back to the strategy and tactics of Lenin and Trotsky. In Russia in 1917 Lenin’s party was incomparably weaker in numbers and strength than the parties of Thorez and Togliatti in France and Italy today. By old Comintern standards, the French and Italian Communists might have been expected to play from strength, to enter no coalitions with the bourgeois parties – the Comintern programme regarded such coalitions as the cardinal sin of reformism – and to stage Soviet revolutions. But until recently the tactics of the Western European Communists – their insistence on the ‘governmental, constructive’ character of their policies – made many an old-fashioned ‘reformist’ socialist blush at its ‘opportunism’ and conciliatory attitude towards the bourgeoisie.
It is only since the French and Italian Communists have been eliminated from governmental coalitions that their propaganda and activities have gradually grown more radical and obstructive. Even so, they do not seem to have aimed at a revolutionary seizure of power. Even in the recent strikes, for all their turbulence and widespread character, the old battle-cry, Les Soviets partout, was not heard. In promoting the French strikes, M Thorez’s party certainly sought, as one of its chief aims, to exert pressure on its former partners in governmental coalitions to get them to agree to a renewal of the partnership.
The Main Objective: Until recently, at any rate, this was the main objective of Communist policy. It was dictated by the Communists’ desire to prevent France from being integrated under the Marshall Plan in the ‘Western bloc’, by a desire to keep France in the role of a neutral buffer between the blocs, rather than by the ambition to establish new Commune in Paris. If this was their purpose, then their tactics were calculated to defeat it, and that so far has been the effect. The question is whether a new line may now emerge.
It is, however, possible, that too profound motives can be read into the mind of the Communist leaders. The very real and acute economic grievances of the French working classes can by themselves explain the strikes. As the Communists, and not the Socialists, lead the majority of the organised working class in France, they have had in any case to voice those grievances and try to redress them. In doing so they acted as the reformist and semi-reformist Socialists acted a generation earlier.
Against this must be set the essentially revolutionary tactics of East European Communism. The contrast between Communist policies in Eastern and Western Europe indicates the range of the present departure from Socialism in One Country. The doctrine has now become something like Socialism in One Zone, the Russian zone of influence. The departure has been dictated more by practical than doctrinal motives. The war and the devastation and impoverishment suffered by Russia have dealt a blow to many of the hopes and great expectations reposed in Socialism in a Single Country. The prospects of Russia’s full economic recovery are remote. The prospects of prosperity for the Russian people are even remoter. The same is, in varying degrees, true of most East European countries.
These circumstances provided the practical reasons for the attempt on the part of Russia to widen, directly or indirectly, the basis for her own reconstruction by linking up the economic systems of Russia and Eastern Europe. Rightly or wrongly, the Soviet leaders believe that eventually the East European nations as well as Russia will benefit from that link-up more than in the long run they would profit from reintegration into the capitalist system.
If this departure from Socialism in One Country has been chiefly prompted by Russia’s own domestic needs, it was also greatly encouraged by the wartime agreements between Russia and the Western Allies. It is necessary to keep this in mind in order to see current Soviet policies in the right perspective. The agreements of Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam gave some sort of international sanction to Russian policies in Eastern Europe. True, the sanction was vague, as vague and ill-defined as was the term ‘democracy’ in the wartime Allied statements. But, in so far as the peace settlement was conceived in terms of zones of influence, it was inevitable that in their zone the Russians would fill in the political formulas with their own content.
Ever since the war, Russian diplomacy has taken its stand on the wartime contracts with the Western Allies. The legal basis of Teheran – Yalta – Potsdam – San Francisco has been Mr Molotov’s and Mr Gromyko’s bible, in the light of which the puzzle of Soviet diplomacy falls into a more or less coherent pattern. Soviet diplomacy has done its utmost to squeeze out as much benefit for Russia from the wartime agreement as it could.
On its side, the Soviet government has formally observed what it considered to be the tacit assumptions, if not the explicit stipulations, of the wartime allocation of zones of influence to the great powers, including so far the discouragement of Western European Communism from pursuing distinctly revolutionary objectives.
Western Policies: The Russians regard the politics of the Western powers in the post-Potsdam era as deliberate attempts to reverse the wartime division of zones and to reduce the Russian zone of influence – and not for the first time. The Kremlin remembers the course of the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic wars. Another analogy is found in the successful attempt of the Western powers during the Congress of Berlin, in 1878, to reduce the zone of influence secured by Russia under the peace of San Stefano.
Young Russian diplomats – and they form the bulk of the Soviet diplomatic corps today – see in the events since Potsdam a repetition on a much larger scale of the course of events that led from San Stefano to Berlin, and they are anxious to arrest it. They feel that whatever the economic and military handicaps under which they work, the Yalta – Potsdam agreements provide a foundation for their arguments, which cannot be refuted by the West so long as the West has not irrevocably disavowed the wartime commitments. The social upheavals in Eastern Europe seem in their eyes to constitute an additional and powerful guarantee for the stability of Russian influence there. No ‘social revolution’ in the Balkans barred the road from San Stefano to Berlin. Today, they argue, things are different.
Conflict of Power: The Teheran – Potsdam ‘orthodoxy’ practised by Soviet diplomacy strikes many observers in the West as disingenuous. But it reflects the hope of the Soviet leaders for the peaceful, though not necessarily friendly, coexistence of Soviet Communism and Western democracy. This explains the formalistic litigiousness of Mr Molotov and Mr Gromyko. Even the recent appeals of the Cominform, marking as they do an important change of emphasis, were still couched in terms of the Eastern bloc’s self-defence against the danger of war.
It is impossible to say in what direction Soviet and Communist policies will now move, if it is decided in Moscow that the post-Potsdam bargaining and litigation have reached a term with the London failure. In Soviet eyes, the class struggle has now assumed an international character unknown before. Two opposed class principles have come to be embodied by two great powers, the United States and Russia. Marxist theory has usually forecast that any struggle between two hostile classes is more likely than not to end in armed conflict and the final victory of one class, but Marxist theory has also admitted the possibility of a conflict ending in the mutual ruin of both contestants. This admission now has an ominously topical ring in the ears of a generation that, on the threshold of the atomic age, sees the development of class antagonism on a worldwide scale coinciding with a conflict of power between two giant states. If it is mutual ruin that awaits the opposed ranks should they not shrink before the contest? The question will be pondered with the most profound earnestness ‘on both sides of the barricade’.