Isaac Deutscher 1950

Stalin, Mao and Korea

Source: The Reporter, 1 August 1950. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

I: Background for Aggression

Only about four months elapsed between the announcement of the Russian-Chinese agreements in Moscow last February and the outbreak of the Korean war. It is obvious Stalin and Mao Tse-tung must have discussed Korea and agreed to advise or encourage Kim Il Sung, the North Korean Premier, to launch his offensive. It must have taken Kim Il Sung at least three months to prepare for the operation militarily and politically, to get Moscow’s approval of his plan, and to start moving. In this case post hoc does seem to signify propter hoc.

The Korean attack is in every respect a by-product of, and a sequel to, the Chinese revolution; and it is in this context that Stalin’s decision to let the local Communist forces strike across the thirty-eighth parallel must be viewed.

Strategically, Korea is not only ‘the dagger pointed at Japan’, but also the back door to Manchuria. It was from Korea that Japan struck against the Russians in Manchuria in 1904. In retrospect, the annexation of the peninsula by Japan in 1910 appears as the prelude to the great design of continental conquest which Tokyo was to put into operation two and three decades later. The strategic importance of Korea was enhanced in the 1930s, when the Japanese unified the Korean and Manchurian railways and built several new harbours on the north-eastern coast, including Rashin, a naval base facing Vladivostok. Incidentally, Korea also borders directly on the USSR, but this frontier is only about twenty miles long, not very significant in comparison with the five-hundred-mile boundary between Korea and Manchuria.

In 1945, the Soviet Far-Eastern Army settled along the thirty-eighth parallel to cover the newly-acquired Russian zone of influence in Manchuria and the approaches to Vladivostok. This was still a limited objective, local in character; and the Russians had American consent. Yet the choice of that parallel was less fortuitous than it might have seemed at the time. For the Russians it was the most convenient line: it was nearly at the peninsula’s narrowest point, less than half as wide as the actual Korean-Manchurian frontier. The military strongholds in the north, used by the Japanese in 1904 and 1931, came under Russian control. In their part of the peninsula, the Americans had no elbow room for the deployment of strategically important forces. The Russians could well be satisfied with their position; and their purpose then seemed to be to stabilise the demarcation line on the thirty-eighth parallel. They would, of course, have preferred to control the whole of the peninsula, but southern Korea was not worth a conflict with the United States, whose forces occupied it until the middle of 1949.

The Communist victory in China gave the Korean problem a new importance, and seemed to open up new possibilities. Hitherto, northern Korea had served merely to safeguard the Russian interest in Manchuria, a local and limited, though considerable, interest. Since Mao’s victory the Russian stake in Asia has grown immensely and unexpectedly. Manchuria is now the meeting ground of two revolutions; it is the key to the industrialisation of China, the pivot of Russian-Chinese relations. Through Manchuria Moscow controls the Chinese revolution. From Korea an enemy might threaten not only the Russian influence in Manchuria but the far more important Russian influence in China.

True enough, no such threat was imminent when Stalin and Mao were making up their minds about Korea. They were dealing with potential rather than with actual dangers. But neither Stalin nor Mao could take the stability of the Communist government of North Korea for granted as long as South Korea, comprising two-thirds of the Korean population, remained under American influence. They aimed at the elimination of American influence from the whole of the peninsula.

When Stalin welcomed the victorious Mao at the Kremlin, he must have done so with some embarrassment. For years, right up till the final offensive, Stalin had been sceptical of Mao, his army and his revolution. The infallible leader of Communism had proved himself a timid and a poor political strategist compared with his Chinese guest. The Kremlin had not openly supported Mao because it feared American intervention in China. This must have had its effect when the Korean issue came up for discussion. Almost certainly Stalin was now anxious not to give the impression of undue timidity and not to be outdone once again by Mao’s audacity. So Stalin took a ‘bold’ line in Korea: let Kim Il Sung attack.

The risk really did seem negligible. Since the United States had not intervened with its own military strength against Communism in China, it did not seem logical that the United States would move its own forces into Korea. There was no prima facie reason why the United States, having lost nearly all influence on the Asiatic mainland, should defend South Korea. Who would let himself be ejected from a mansion to make a stand on, and defend his right to, a small back stair?

Stalin and Mao must have been confirmed in this reasoning by unofficial and semi-official American statements, made after the withdrawal of American troops from Korea, that the American position in South Korea was indefensible and ‘expendable’. This sounded like an intimation to Moscow, or its Korean protégés, that southern Korea was a vacuum into which they were free to move. Moscow must also have known that the United States distrusted the South Korean government enough to refuse to arm it effectively. In a word, no red lights were seen on the thirty-eighth parallel.

The impact of the Chinese revolution on Korea has been wider and deeper than these considerations suggest. The Chinese revolution revealed the impotence of the old Asian ruling groups and the momentum of the Communist-led revolt against them. Socially, Korea has, on a small scale, presented the same problems that China did two or three years ago. The government of Syngman Rhee has been hardly more attractive than Chiang Kai-shek’s. Its ‘democratic’ pretensions have been equally spurious, its corruption equally notorious, and its failure to tackle the most urgent domestic issues, especially land reform, equally lamentable.

The South Korean government has been feebler than the Kuomintang in that it cannot even invoke past glories and that within the few years of its existence it has managed to attract all sorts of unsavoury characters – speculators in land and former Japanese stooges. Against this, the programme of reforms advanced by the North Korean Communists may have had as much appeal as Mao’s had in China. Moreover, the South Korean administration has had to bear the onus of the recent pro-Japanese turn in American policy – and anti-Japanese feeling, in a country that spent half a century under Japanese occupation, can hardly be overrated. All these circumstances were undoubtedly carefully weighed in the Kremlin when the decision on Korea was being taken. The conclusion must have been that, barring direct American intervention, the South Korean government would crumble under the first blow from the north. Kim Il Sung was expected to repeat in 1950, on a smaller scale, Mao’s performance of 1949.

Stalin and Mao were not wrong in their evaluation of the domestic forces in Korea. What they miscalculated was the American reaction. They had not reckoned with the American fight on the back stairs leading into the vast mansions of Asian Communism. And the danger to Russia that Stalin was so anxious to avert in China has materialised now: American air squadrons and troops are fighting near Russia’s far-eastern frontier.

II: Manchuria – The Key

Never in history has Russia’s position in China been as strong as it is now. For many decades Russia had to contend with British, French, American, German and Japanese influences, to advance, retreat and manoeuvre. Five years after the Second World War all the Western powers have been eliminated from China, and Russia has gained unrivalled predominance.

Soviet diplomacy can hardly claim the credit for this amazing change. No foreign office, not even one endowed with a demonic genius for intrigue and plot, could subordinate – at one stroke – a nation of nearly half a billion people. Nor was Russian military intervention one of the decisive factors in Mao’s triumph. The Chinese revolution owes its victory to its own momentum.

There are many indications that for a long time Stalin and the Politburo overrated the strength and the stability of the Kuomintang and underrated the Chinese Communists. At Yalta and Potsdam, Stalin stated that Chiang Kai-shek represented the only force capable of ruling China. This opinion he still held a few years later. He distrusted Mao’s confidence in his army. He thought that Mao’s plans involved risks too serious for Moscow to take.

The risk which probably was uppermost in Stalin’s mind was that of a protracted civil war in China, which might have given the United States enough time to give the Kuomintang heavy military support. If it had, American air squadrons, and perhaps troops, might have appeared near the far-eastern frontier of the USSR. For this reason, Stalin at one time tried to dissuade Mao from pursuing his ambitious plans. Even last year, in the middle of Mao’s victorious campaigns, Stalin still was cautious. The Soviet ambassador remained at Chiang’s side after all the Western diplomats had left. Stalin still waited to see whether the United States would intervene. The final victory of Chinese Communism came to Moscow as a gigantic windfall.

It may be worth recalling that Stalin made a similar miscalculation in the middle 1920s, before Chiang Kai-shek started his great march to the north. In those days, Chiang was still Moscow’s ally and an honorary member of the Executive of the Communist International, a fact that is now almost forgotten. In March 1926, the Politburo in Moscow discussed whether it should encourage Chiang in his plans for the conquest of the whole of China. Stalin held that Chiang should be advised to content himself with the south, and to seek a modus vivendi with Chang Tso-lin’s government, which controlled the north. Against Stalin’s counsel, Chiang marched to the north and achieved a success as rapid and startling as Mao’s.

People who ask who ‘sold’ China to Russia simply do not understand the greatest and most complex social upheaval of our days. Stalin did not even try to ‘buy’ that strange commodity. History pressed it into his hands.

The reason may be found in the social structure of China under the Kuomintang. Nearly three-quarters of the industrial plant was owned by foreign capital, which proved an obstacle, not a help, to China’s economic advance. Industry produced only ten per cent of the nation’s wretchedly low income. Food and textiles accounted for about four-fifths of total industrial output. China had not even begun to build up modern industries; its factories (not counting those in Manchuria) averaged a fraction of one horsepower per worker.

In 1947 the output of iron in China proper was less than twenty thousand tons – about two ounces for each Chinese. The output of coal was twenty-one million tons – about eighty pounds per person. The railways could not be kept in repair; the farmer could not renew or repair his tools; the power stations could not work. These two figures – two ounces of iron and eighty pounds of coal per person – show why government was impossible in Kuomintang China. Another statistic – ten per cent of the landowners owned more than half of the land and took at least fifty per cent of the crops as rent – helps explain the impetus of the Chinese revolution.

Starting with this legacy, what can Mao achieve in the next ten or twenty years? What role will Russia play in the development of China’s resources? Unless the Chinese economy grows rapidly, Mao’s regime will decay and disintegrate as Chiang’s did. Self-preservation compels Mao to start large-scale industrialisation. But within what social and political framework?

The Chinese revolution has two features which distinguish it sharply from the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The latter, from the beginning, came from the cities. Its driving force was the industrial proletariat. The Soviet regime was established in Russia’s two capitals, Petrograd and Moscow; only from them did it spread outwards into the countryside, where peasants were rising against landlords. Broadly, this had also been the pattern of earlier Western European revolutions. The theorists of revolution took its repetition for granted. Even the Chinese revolution of the middle 1920s was predominantly urban.

Mao’s revolution followed a diametrically opposite course. For nearly two decades, the political life of urban China had been almost extinct, the industrial working class utterly passive. In part this was caused by the deindustrialisation of China proper and the dispersal of the urban working class under the Japanese occupation and the rule of the Kuomintang. Mao himself has been the leader of a gigantic Jacquerie, a peasant war, and not, like Lenin, Stalin or Trotsky, the inspirer or organiser of a proletarian party. He has carried revolution from the countryside into the lethargic cities.

No less important is the difference in the initial accomplishments of Mao and Lenin. The Bolshevik revolution expropriated at a stroke the entire class of landlords and distributed their property among the peasants. Soon it proceeded to socialise large-scale industry. Mao has so far been more modest. The scope of his agrarian revolution is not yet clear; it varies from province to province and from region to region. But there has been no wholesale expropriation of landlords; the emphasis has been on lowering sharecroppers’ rents and on a partial transfer of land to the peasants. Theoretically, only landlords who collaborated with the Japanese have been altogether expropriated.

Perhaps Mao is deliberately feeding the landlords with illusions and disarming their resistance. His promises of help to the urban ‘patriotic capitalists’ also may have a sinister purpose. In any case, the start of the Chinese revolution is very different from that in Russia. For some time, Chinese society will remain much more heterogeneous, and less malleable, than Russian society after 1917. The economic and political influence of landlords and ‘patriotic capitalists’ will hardly vanish altogether, even though it may express itself only in a devious manner. The industrial working class in China proper is less than a secondary factor. The weight of the peasantry is even more enormous than it was in Russia.

Two major prerequisites would be needed for a thorough Stalinist swallowing-and-digesting of China: totalitarian political control and a collectivist planned economy, both modelled on Russian patterns. In theory, Mao may be able to achieve totalitarian control quite easily. His party holds all the positions of power, and uses the remnants of the leftist Kuomintang as a mere façade. Before the revolution China was run by a single party, and another single-party regime should not run into any great difficulties. The real problem is whether Mao can build a collectivist economy.

Mao describes himself as a Marxist-Leninist and is committed to socialist collectivism. But such a principle is easier to profess than to carry out. The peasant influence has predominated in Mao’s social environment; and the peasant, in China as elsewhere, is an individualist. Can individualistic China adopt collectivist ideas? Collectivism is an urban idea par excellence. Will Mao’s revolution, which has come from the countryside, allow itself to be conquered by an urban idea which has hardly struck roots even in urban China?

If one is guided by sociology, history or, for that matter, Marxist theory, the answer is a categorical ‘No’. But the events of the last few decades have disproved so many sociological notions that one cannot be quite sure.

Collectivist planning is possible only when the centre of a nation’s economy has shifted from small-scale farming and handicraft to large-scale industry. But the key to China’s industrialisation lies not in Mao’s hands but in Stalin’s. Not only can the Russians help with machines and technical advice. China’s own base for industrialisation lies in Manchuria, which has, since Yalta and Potsdam, been a Russian zone of influence. Without Manchuria no serious effort at the development of China’s resources can be undertaken.

In the last two decades China proper has been deindustrialised, but Manchuria has gone through intensive industrialisation, especially while it was occupied by Japan. Even though the Russians have carried away some of its industrial plant as ‘war’ booty, Manchuria is still as important to the Chinese economy as the Donets Basin was to Russia under the first Five-Year Plans. Manchuria has something like three times as many industrial workers as the rest of China. It possesses the only substantial reserve of skilled labour. The whole prospect of China’s industrialisation depends on whether Russia relinquishes its hold on that province and allows Mao to reintegrate it with the rest of China.

These issues – Mao’s long-term domestic policy and Manchuria – must have been the main subjects of the extraordinarily protracted negotiations between Stalin and Mao last December, January and February.

It is easy to see what Stalin’s dilemma is. If he continues to exploit Manchurian resources, he is bound to provoke an anti-Russian reaction in China, of which Mao himself – in the past not excessively obedient to the Comintern – might become the spokesman. Without Manchuria, the outlook and the policies of Mao’s government would be determined by the backwardness and heterogeneity of China’s social structure. The individualistic countryside would reassert itself; and even landlordism, defeated but not destroyed, might win a new lease on life. Circumstances might then drive Mao along the road travelled by Chiang Kai-shek, who, we remember, had once also been Moscow’s ally.

Stalin must encourage China to industrialise and to set up a planned economy. This should imply a Russian withdrawal from Manchuria, an immediate loss to the Russian economy. Two or three years ago, when Russia was still in the throes of postwar economic chaos, this solution would have been almost unthinkable. The subsequent success of the Five-Year Plan has made it possible for Stalin to give more consideration to Chinese claims.

The Kremlin has, nevertheless, not yet decided on a clear-cut withdrawal. Whether Stalin allows China to recover Manchuria or not, he cannot have unqualified confidence in Mao.

The agreements of 14 February 1950, concluded after shrewd Oriental bargaining, reflect this state of affairs. Many Western commentators, for once agreeing with their Moscow counterparts, saw complete harmony between Stalin and Mao. With some disappointment they decided that Mao would not be an Asian Tito. Yet the relationship between Stalin and Mao is more ambiguous than appears on the surface. The Moscow agreements embody an uneasy compromise; they reveal still unsatisfied Chinese claims and unallayed Russian suspicions.

Complete agreement would have brought Manchuria, with all its resources, railways, bases and harbours, back to China. The Moscow text is calculated to give the impression that this actually took place. Moscow declared the Russo-Chinese Pact of August 1945, under which Chiang Kai-shek accepted Russia’s far-eastern claims, null and void. This declaration was meant to free Mao from the onus of subservience to Moscow.

With the Moscow agreements in his hands, Mao has presented himself to the Chinese people as a better patriot than Chiang; not only has he gotten rid of American and European influences, he has also regained what Chiang had surrendered to Russia. At the same time, Moscow can say that it was not pursuing imperialist ambition at all in 1945, when Stalin hailed the recovery of Port Arthur as Russia’s long-awaited revenge on Japan for the defeat of 1905. Now Stalin can say that he was merely out to weaken the reactionary Kuomintang; that what he took from the Kuomintang – the Manchurian Railways and Port Arthur – he has now magnanimously returned. He has even promised restitution of the industrial plant that Russia confiscated in Manchuria.

How real is this Russian withdrawal from Manchuria? The specific clauses of the February agreements leave room for scepticism. How much of the dismantled plant will be returned is not indicated; and this may become a bone of contention if the Russians begin to bargain hard over every piece of machinery, as they are likely to do. The Russian withdrawal from the Manchurian Railways is supposed to be effected ‘immediately after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty with Japan, but not later than by the end of 1952’. For two and a half years then, Russia retains the key positions from which it can facilitate or obstruct China’s reabsorption of Manchuria. For this period, too, Mao cannot risk being out of step with Stalin.

But Stalin has been careful to retain at least one trump which he can play against Mao even after 1952. That trump is the harbour of Dairen. Article Three of the agreement on Manchuria states that ‘the question of the Dairen harbour will be subject to review after the signing of the Peace Treaty with Japan’. In the meantime, the Chinese will take over the administration of the harbour and the property at present administered or rented by the Russians. The article says nothing, however, about the withdrawal of Soviet troops; and in this respect it contrasts curiously with Article Two, which calls for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Port Arthur. This is apparently why the problem of Dairen is ‘to come under review after the conclusion of the Peace Treaty with Japan’ – why, in other words, its solution has been postponed to the Greek calends. Dairen is to remain a Russian base, even after the Manchurian Railways and Port Arthur have been returned to the Chinese.

A glance at the map would explain the significance of this arrangement. Dairen is so situated that from it the Russians can control Port Arthur. From Dairen they can watch the entire coastline and the adjacent waters, especially because of the disproportion between Russian and Chinese naval strength. Moreover, to keep their naval base at Dairen, the Russians must secure their communication lines across Manchuria. This they may have already done in an unpublished ‘protocol’ to the February agreement, or they are certain to do it when the Dairen question ‘comes up for review’. Communication lines mean political control – in Manchuria no less than in Eastern Europe.

The key to China’s economic future thus remains in Russian hands, despite Stalin’s generous gestures towards Mao. This is not to say that Moscow intends to deny the new China the use of Manchurian resources; it merely means that China can use those resources only under Moscow’s supervision. Since Manchurian coal and steel are essential to his regime, Mao is willing to pay almost any political price for them; and his willingness to pay a stiff one increases as the West continues to manifest its hostility towards him.

The February agreements are undoubtedly one of Stalin’s tactical master strokes. But Moscow may yet overplay its hand. If the Russians play the Manchurian trump too crudely or too often it may yet drive the Chinese Communists into a schism of incalculable consequence.