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Gordon Haskell

Quarterly Notes

The Post-Geneva Spirit

(Winter 1955–56)

From The New International, Vol. XXI No. 4, Winter 1955–56, pp. 207–212.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AS TIME PASSES, the meaning of the détènte in the cold war, of the Geneva Spirit as a tactic in the Kremlin’s foreign policy becomes ever clearer. It is the obvious answer to the current phase of stabilization and solidification of the capitalist world, especially in Europe and, though to a lesser degree, in Southeast Asia. It is also a reaction to the military stalemate which has been brought about by the availability of extremely powerful nuclear weapons on both sides, while the means of delivering them and defending against them remain essentially refinements on buzz bomb and long-range bombers of the last war.

The military aspect of the stalemate is adequate to explain the Kremlin’s détènte policy only in a very restricted sense. Except to those simple-minded propagandists (who sometimes seek to cloak their propaganda in the sombre disguise of analysis) to whom the threat of Stalinism’s expansionism is primarily if not almost solely a matter of its propensity to send its armies marching across its borders, it has been fairly obvious that the Stalinist chiefs, not being madmen, use their military power only as the ultimate resources of political warfare. The nuclear stalemate has restricted political warfare to the extent that the Stalinists, like all other realistic politicians, realize that for the foreseeable future it is the better part of valor to refrain from driving issues and situations, even when they have the clear advantage, to such a degree of sharpness and acuteness at which there is a danger that the other side may feel itself driven to its ultimate resource.

In other words, at the moment they feel, unlike Dulles, that this is no time to be walking to the brink of war. That is not to say that there is no prize big enough or threat dangerous enough to drive them to the arbitrament of arms. But this is a poor time for it. Perhaps, if the Russians definitely win the race in the design and production of an effective inter-continental guided missile, the scales might again be tipped ...

But this is the less important aspect of the détènte. The real point is that the Stalinist leaders have apparently decided that they have about reached the limits of territorial expansion possible at the present time. The economic stabilization, and even boom, in America and Western Europe have solidified those areas against Stalinist encroachment. Korea stands devastated and divided, as a symbol of the world stalemate, and the folly of any attempt to change the balance of forces by a direct military attack. In Southeast Asia, Indochina dangles like a ripe fruit on the vine. But unless new political forces appear which show signs of the capacity of regenerating the political life of Southern Indochina and hence of threatening the Stalinist regime in the North, the big brothers in Peiping and Moscow can afford to wait, however onerous this may be to their “comrades” in Hanoi.

There appears to be a real soft spot in Indonesia, and Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaya retain in themselves all the conditions which make Stalinist penetration possible. But Burma, India and Pakistan have consolidated their regimes to such a point that even a Stalinist victory in one of the “soft spots” of the area would not necessarily or even probably mean their fall. And as long as this is so, a heavy, sustained and victorious push in the “soft” countries would risk far more than could be gained from it. So, it is likely that the Stalinists are willing to wait in these countries ... and if their local agents become impatient, they have ways of bringing them in line.

It is quite possible that in this respect there may be a considerable difference in outlook between the Russian Stalinists and their Chinese colleagues. After all, as a consequence of World War II, the Russian empire was extended deep into Europe. The Chinese, on the other hand, still have the galling problem of Chiang Kai-shek sitting in “their” Formosa, raiding their maritime commerce by ship and plane, and presenting an eager political auxiliary and invasion staging-platform to the American bloc in the event of World War III. In addition, the American economic and political blockades are far more humiliating and damaging to China than they are to Russia.

All this means that although Russian and Chinese Stalinists may well share a general estimate of the world political situation and how it should be handled, the Chinese have special problems which make it impossible for them to adopt exactly the same attitude as their Russian colleagues. For the Russian policy may be summarized as one of seeking to consolidate and legitimize the status quo in Europe. The Chinese feel that there is at least one aspect of the status quo which they do not want solidified and legitimized: Chiang’s regime in Formosa.

As to the Russians, that what they are after is a recognition by the capitalist bloc of the status quo in Europe is clear. At Geneva (the first Geneva, where the spirit was present) what they said in effect was:

“We are not going to argue with you about the Atlantic Pact. It is a fact, and we recognize it. In return, there is no point to your trying to argue with us about the division of Germany. That, too, is a fact, and you might as well recognize it. As to the satellites, there is no point in even discussing the matter. So, actually, there is nothing to discuss and negotiate in the big sense. What is needed is an end to threats and the atmosphere of crisis. Let us all recognize that World War II is over, and its gains and losses are no longer subject to revision. On the other hand, World War III is a long way off, and neither of us benefits by pretending that it is around the corner. If we can shake hands over the division of Europe and agree not to try to upset it, then all we have to ‘negotiate’ or ‘settle’ is the recognition of the fact that World War II is over in Asia also, and our China came out on top.”

Does the Khrushchev-Bulganin junket in Southeast Asia, or the Stalinist economic and diplomatic “penetration” of the middle east contradict this theory of what the Stalinists are up to? Not at all. Although they have apparently recognized the capitalist stabilization as the dominant fact with regard to which their tactics must be oriented, this does not mean that Stalinist policy must stand still and inactive until such time as some major political or economic upset in the capitalist world once again sets things in motion.

First, it is to their advantage to woo Nehru, Nu and all the other neutralists in the world just as strongly as possible for their policy. Any means by which they can convince these gentlemen, and the political public which they represent, that they are a decent, law-abiding, respectable, jolly and well-meaning sort is to their advantage.

“After all,” the leaders for whom Nehru stands as a symbol seem to be saying, “is it not better to be at peace with such fine fellows? What if they have gobbled up the whole of Eastern Europe, maintain a totalitarian political regime at home, keep the masses in their own country in the direst poverty so that a small ruling class may live in luxury?

“And behold, even the local Communists, whom we know to be vicious to the core, are being tamed by these reasonable people. In India they have set their face against the faction in the Stalinist party which refuses to support Nehru in his foreign (and even most of his domestic) policy. In France, Italy, the United States, and everywhere else, they are willing to give up any program of overthrowing capitalism, or even struggle against it, in exchange for an alliance with those political elements which are willing also to recognize and legitimize the international status quo. They do not set onerous conditions on their alliance, or seek to exact favorable terms. All they want is to be given the opportunity to add their modest bit to the general clamor for peace and good will.”

Secondly, a desire to legitimize the status quo in Europe and to end the crisis atmosphere in which the world has been living since the Berlin blockade does not mean that international politics can be put into mothballs. Stability, equilibrium, consolidation, co-existence ... these are all relative terms. In the midst of a situation in which neither imperialist war bloc seems to be in a position to deal a serious, let alone a decisive blow to the other, the Arab-Israel struggle, the fight for national independence in North Africa, the rising movement for equality and self-determination in the rest of Africa and other situations too numerous to list, all present opportunities for influencing people and winning friends and adherents to the Stalinist bloc.

IF THERE IS ANY SINGLE FACT about the foreign policy of the United States which is more damning than the rest it is the inability both this administration and its Democratic opposition have shown to meet the Russian peace offensive, let alone to mount an effective political attack on Stalinism of their own.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, let us repeat again that the current Stalinist tactic has been launched as a reaction to the consolidation and stabilization of capitalism in Europe, America and a good deal of what capitalism has left of Asia. The senility of capitalism is proving to be a protracted one, and its decay and disintegration is marked at times by all the appearances of flourishing health.

But despite this apparent vigor of what is left of the capitalist world, it is a striking fact that it feels everywhere on the defensive with regard to Stalinism.

Thus, when the Stalinists make their overtures to the rulers of the Arab countries of the Middle East, the American and British governments shout “foul,” and try to convince the world that the opening of commercial, financial and political ties between the Stalinist and Arab countries is an “invasion” of “traditionally British” (or French, or American) territory, and hence in the same category as a military breach of the peace.

They howl that this is incompatible with the Stalinist peace offensive and the Geneva Spirit, and that it demonstrates that peaceful co-existence is impossible with such a perfidious bunch.

But who is to believe these cries or to pay them much heed? To be sure, only the most naive of the neutralists believe that the Khruschev-Bulganin tour of Southeast Asia, or the Stalinist moves in the middle east were or are expressions of a pure and selfless pursuit of peace and good will. They know that what the Stalinists are doing in these areas is to win support for their own position, to seek firm or firmer ties with political groupings there, to fish in troubled waters with the hope of catching something which may, in the long run, be of substantial value to them.

But what of it? Don’t the Americans and the British and the rest have the same opportunities? They have been in these areas longer, have deeply established economic and political roots there, have bound these countries to their own with all kinds of economic and cultural ties. It would appear that they have every advantage, and should welcome the Stalinists onto a familiar field on which they can be defeated and shamed for all the world to see. After all, if there be anything to the term “competitive coexistence” would it not be that we all have a chance at each other, and each other’s territory ... and let the best man win?

But the actuality is that what “should” be, from the point of view of capitalism, isn’t. It is precisely in the colonial and semi-colonial areas, where the British and French (and now the Americans) have been for the longest that they are hated the most. The close relations they have established are with reactionary, hated, and often unstable and corrupt ruling classes, and not with any of the progressive, popular and democratic elements who are trying to lead these countries out of their ancient slumbers into the modern world. The economic ties with which they have bound these countries to their own have been the bonds of imperialist exploitation or special privilege. When the Stalinists enter these areas, they look to the populations and even a section of the rising ruling classes much as the economic, commercial and even military envoys of the Nazis looked to them before: as enemies of their enemies, and thus, at least as probable friends.

It is, of course, true, that the Stalinists offer no equal or even unequal access of the capitalist governments to “their” satellites, let alone to their homelands. After all, they represent a totalitarian social system, and one of their advantages is not only that this erects an iron curtain between their slaves and the outside world, but that it gives them a degree of tactical independence and freedom which cannot be achieved by governments still burdened with bourgeois democracy.

Thus, the Stalinist masters can shriek for peace one day, and order troops into Korea the next. Or they can denounce their enemies as incorrigible imperialist beasts and warmongers on Monday, and on Tuesday announce that nothing stands in the way of a peaceful settlement with them but a few misunderstandings. They can shout for collective security on Wednesday, and sign a pact with Hitler on Thursday.

But this has always been an advantage of any autocracy, tyranny or totalitarian regime over democracy. That has not meant that those who have confidence in the innate superiority of democracy are wrong, What it does mean, in the present instance, is that the weakest opponent of Stalinist totalitarianism is not consistent, thoroughgoing democracy ... but rather the half-hearted, half-baked, half-mockery of democracy which is really the capitalist world.

The reality with which capitalism seeks to oppose the demagogy of Stalinism is the dictatorship of the ally Franco; the democracy-for-whites-only of South Africa; French rule in North Africa, and white rule throughout most of that continent; Rhee’s dictatorship in South Korea; Chiang’s corrupt dictatorship in Formosa and Songgram’s in Thailand; the oil dynasties of the middle east; the military dictatorships of Latin America, etc. etc. This is what the world at large, and the oppressed masses in particular, see as the real political face of capitalism. It is this, and neither freedom nor the American standard of living, which is actually competing with Stalinism. And the role of the United States in the struggle is to subsidize, support and back up all these corrupt and outmoded ruling classes, or the imperialist allies who in turn support them. And thus the ground is prepared and made fertile for the Stalinists to sow and reap a harvest of support in the struggle of competitive co-existence.

It is not that no alternative is available. The labor movement in America, for instance, has everything to gain and nothing to lose by pursuing a consistent and principled democratic foreign policy. It could throw its support, moral and material, to precisely those democratic and socialist movements abroad which are seeking to end both foreign and domestic oppression, to modernize and liberate their countries. They could throw their political weight at home against the support for discredited autocracies and imperialisms abroad. Armed with such a foreign policy, they could meet the Stalinist challenge head-on both in Europe and throughout the rest of the world.

“You want peace?” the labor movement could say. “Good, we are for it too. We are for democracy also, and to prove it, we are broadening it at home and are exercizing every effort to help it and defeat its enemies where ever they may be, first on our side of the iron curtain, where we can actually do it. As to the partition of Germany, we are pulling our troops out of that country to show that we really stand for peace ... and we expect that ... you will not dare to do the same. We are not for peace with you because we think you are democrats, or are good fellows, or are for peace. You are totalitarian tyrants, as always, and we will continue to tell the world exactly that. But we are for peace because we do not propose to expose the world to nuclear devastation, and because, above all, we are confident that it is your regime and not ours which is sick and which, if left to stew in its own juice, will eventually disintegrate as a result of the struggle for freedom by your slaves. In the meantime, what we have to offer the rest of the world is help to establish liberty and democracy and a rising standard of living in their own countries. If you think you can compete with us to win the support of their peoples, go right ahead.”

The American labor movement (and those in France and Britain are, in their own ways, in a similar state) is in no position to meet the Stalinist challenge in this way ... the only way in which it can be met successfully. This is so because our labor movement is still bound to capitalist politics, both ideologically and organizationally. Until it liberates itself from this bondage, it cannot even begin to meet Stalinism on an equal, let alone a superior footing.

It is still the most important mission of socialists, especially in the United States, to seek by every means at their disposal to assist the labor movement at home to break with its capitalist ideas and allies and seek the leadership of the nation.

Unless this happens in the United States and some of the other leading countries, the Stalinists will ultimately succeed in their immediate aim of stabilizing and sanctifying the status quo in Europe, and bending events to their advantage in Asia and the rest of the world.

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Last updated: 15 August 2019