Isaac Deutscher 1953

Lenin’s Foreign Policy

Source: The Times Literary Supplement, 5 June 1953. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Edward Hallett Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Volume Three (A History of Soviet Russia), Macmillan, 36 shillings

Peter Kropotkin, the anarchist thinker, saw in every revolution an inherent conflict between the instinctive anarchism of the people and the statesmanship of its leaders. Every revolution, he argued, owes its greatness to popular anarchism. The leaders remain true to their mission as long as they express the egalitarian aspirations of the masses and opposition to authority. No sooner do they become statesman than they bring about the decline and the decay of the movement. The triumphs of statesmanship are the anti-climaxes of revolution.

Mr EH Carr’s view of the Russian revolution forms an implicit antithesis to Kropotkin’s view. In the third volume of his great work, The Bolshevik Revolution, he describes the problems, the dilemmas and the progress of Bolshevist foreign policy from 1917 to 1923. Ostensibly he offers no special ‘philosophy of revolution’. He shuns generalisation. He assembles facts, analyses circumstances, and outlines policies. The style of his narrative is sober, detached, perfectly empirical. The student can find no more clear-headed and reliable guide through the vast labyrinth of facts. But for all his matter-of-factness and detachment, Mr Carr does develop an historical doctrine; and he does this all the more effectively because he lets the facts expound it. At the risk of some simplification, his doctrine might be summed up thus. Nothing is more dangerous to a revolution than the anarchism of the masses and the utopias and illusions of their leaders. Revolutions are history’s unproductive disturbances unless or until their leaders become statesmen. The Russian revolution found its salvation and consummation in Bolshevist statesmanship; and this found its embodiment in Lenin, the builder of the Soviet Republic, the originator of the New Economic Policy, the revolutionary turned into a supreme diplomatist.

The Bolshevist revolution exercises on Mr Carr the fascination it must exercise on any serious student of modern history. But what grips Mr Carr’s attention is not so much the process of revolution as the gradual insinuation of tradition into the revolution. This was not so striking in the previous two volumes, which dealt with the Bolshevist Party and with its economic policies; for in those fields the reassertion of tradition was either latent or only indirect. It was more open and direct in the conduct of foreign affairs, a field in which Mr Carr, as an historian, feels also most at home. He traces systematically, relentlessly and, it may be said, triumphantly, the successive defeats of the internationalist ‘illusions’ of the Bolshevists and the gradual processes by which traditional patterns of a national, Russian diplomacy re-imposed themselves upon the Bolshevist conduct of foreign affairs.

From the beginning Lenin’s government was confronted by the dilemma whether it ought to promote world revolution or to behave like a ‘normal’ government towards other governments and states. By background and conviction the Bolshevists were inclined to confront all other states with their revolutionary challenge. But from the moment when they seized power the realities of their situation compelled them to seek accommodation with bourgeois regimes. The dilemma was first brought into the open at Brest-Litovsk; and it was there that Lenin’s Realpolitik scored its first momentous success over revolutionary sentiment. Lenin’s government made peace with Hohenzollern Germany, and, without abandoning hope for the eventual progress of proletarian revolution in Europe, it was willing to seek accommodation with any other bourgeois government. But under the impact of Allied intervention Lenin’s policy once again came under the sway of revolutionary illusions. The Comintern was formed at the height of the anti-Bolshevist crusade.

These catastrophic developments [writes Mr Carr] left a lasting mark on Soviet thought. The action of the Allies confirmed and intensified the ideological aspect of Soviet foreign policy and made international revolution once more its principal plank, if only in the interest of national self-preservation. The vital question whether the coexistence of capitalist and socialist states was possible had at any rate been left open by the first pronouncements of the Soviet government... In some, at any rate, of the pronouncements of 1918 it had been answered in the affirmative. Now it seemed irrefutably clear that this coexistence was impossible... and that revolutionary propaganda directed to the workers of these countries was the most effective, and indeed the only effective weapon in the hands of a government whose military resources were still negligible. Soviet foreign policy from the autumn of 1918 to the end of 1920 was in all probability more specifically and exclusively coloured by international and revolutionary aims than at any other time.

After the end of the civil war and the Allied intervention Soviet diplomacy resumed its search for ‘normal’ agreements with foreign powers. Mr Carr describes in illuminating detail the ‘NEP in foreign policy’ and its main stages, the Angle-Soviet trade negotiations of 1920-21 and the Rapallo treaty of 1922. Parallel with these developments, and after the frustration of the hopes for revolution in Europe, began the ‘retreat in Comintern’, the switchover from the revolutionary offensive of 1919-20 to the defensive policies of the ‘united front’. Soviet Russia ‘returned to the international stage'; but, even after Rapallo, her influence in Europe was very limited; and her hopes, both diplomatic and revolutionary, began to turn to Asia. There, too, the Bolshevists at first met with disappointment. Turkey and Persia used Soviet friendship to strengthen their position vis-à-vis the West and then turned their backs on Russia. If in Europe the Communist International was forced to retreat, in Asia it at first hardly had any room for manoeuvre. Up to 1921 Comintern had gained almost no significant positions in Asiatic countries, in spite of its startlingly new and stirring appeals to the colonial peoples.

Mr Carr points to the curious paradox that in Japan, the most industrialised nation in Asia, on which the Bolshevists had placed the greatest hopes, remained more or less inaccessible both to Soviet diplomacy and Soviet revolutionary propaganda. Only in ‘backward’ China did a new and broad prospect open before Soviet policy and Communism when, in 1923, Joffe concluded his agreement with Sun Yat-sen. On this important event Mr Carr ends his comprehensive and richly documented narrative. ‘Within six years of the Bolshevist revolution, Soviet Russia had emerged from the penumbra of confusion and helplessness, and was intervening decisively in the policies of a major Asiatic country.’ But during those years the internationalist aspirations of Bolshevism had gradually shrunk, faded and made room for hard-headed power politics. ‘Henceforth the policy of Comintern would be fitted into a framework of Soviet foreign policy instead of Soviet foreign policy being fitted... into a framework of world revolution.’

The author’s survey is massive and masterly. It ranges over a vast panorama, and it shows that panorama from a great variety of angles. No other work seems to exist, in any language, which treats the interplay of Soviet diplomacy and Comintern policy during the Lenin era with similar comprehensiveness and thoroughness. Yet a reader cannot help wondering just how accurate is, not Mr Carr’s account of the facts, which is beyond reproach, but the broader picture that emerges from it. The author is certainly right in placing the conflict between Realpolitik and revolutionary principle (or sentiment or illusion) in the centre of his narrative and in pointing to the ineluctable ascendancy of Realpolitik. But is he also right in claiming that the switchover to unprincipled power politics was virtually completed in the Lenin era, long before Stalin’s rise to power? It is on this point that the historical evidence is by no means conclusive. When, for instance, Mr Carr speaks about the ‘NEP in foreign policy’, this analogy with domestic policy appears somewhat strained. He illustrates this ‘NEP’ by reference to four Soviet diplomatic moves: trade negotiations with Britain; a treaty with Afghanistan; the Persian settlement; and cooperation with Kemalist Turkey. In fact, none of these moves implied the abandonment of revolutionary principle; and the Afghan, Persian and Turkish treaties fitted very well with the revolutionary trend of Lenin’s policy towards the colonial and semi-colonial peoples. When Mr Carr characterises Russian policy towards the Middle East in 1921 as ‘the succession of Soviet Russia to the traditional Russian role as Britain’s chief rival in central Asia’ he partly ante-dates the trend by many years. True enough, in 1921 Russian policy in the Middle East was emphatically anti-imperialist and therefore anti-British; but it was far from being conducted in the traditional Russian style. On the next page the author himself describes how in 1921 the Soviet government renounced ‘all privileges, concessions and property of the Tsarist government on Persian soil’. A long time was to elapse before Soviet foreign policy appeared, under Stalin’s direction, in the traditional Russian role and demanded privileges and concessions in Persia.

Occasionally the author describes Lenin’s foreign policy in terms that would fit Stalin’s diplomacy, but which are out of harmony with the earlier period. Thus he projects backwards certain elements of the Russo-Polish-German relationship of 1939 into the picture of that relationship in 1920-22, and vaguely suggests that already at that time an attitude hostile to Poland’s independence or integrity was implied in the Russo-German rapprochement. No serious evidence exists for this; and the suggestion is contradicted by weighty facts to which Mr Carr himself refers, and which indicate that in this respect, as in some others, the Rapallo treaty was not yet the forerunner of the Nazi – Soviet Pact of 1939. In this and in a few other instances, Mr Carr sees the victory of power politics over idealistic principle (or illusion) well before that victory materialised.

Doubt may also apply to something deeper than the mere pace with which Realpolitik came to dominate the Bolshevist mind. The book lays bare with instructive ruthlessness the illusions of Soviet foreign policy during the Lenin era. It is the historian’s job to lay bare the self-deceptions of his historical characters; and in doing this Mr Carr remains within the best scholarly tradition. But is he not sometimes carried away by his sound respect for Realpolitik and his contempt for illusions? He speaks disdainfully of the ‘Wilsonian’ tenor of the early Bolshevist ‘appeal from wicked governments to enlightened peoples’. This appeal, it may be observed, is much older than the despised ‘Wilsonian slogans’ – and it has sometimes had much deeper motives and deeper significance. Without the appeal ‘from wicked governments to enlightened peoples’ no great revolution would ever have taken place, certainly not the revolution of which Mr Carr is the historian. Great idealistic illusions and utopias are sometimes a more powerful and a more creative force in human affairs than the most hard-headed statesmanship. If Lenin had been merely a superb power politician he would hardly have loomed as large as he does in the annals of this century. May not his strength have lain in his blend of realism and revolutionary dream? By dismissing the element of dream too lightly, Mr Carr overlooks something of the dramatic complexity of the Russian revolution.

This sort of criticism can be applied only to a work of the highest standard; and it is in part because of its many unusual merits that this limitation of Mr Carr’s History becomes apparent. Beatrice Webb used to divide people into ‘anarchists’ and ‘bureaucrats’ (describing herself as a ‘bureaucrat’). There can be no doubt in which category Mr Carr would class himself. His is the ‘bureaucrat’s’ approach to the Russian revolution. This is a one-sided approach. What ought to be said in its favour is that in Mr Carr’s case it has proved intellectually much more fertile than the approach of the moralising anarchist.