Isaac Deutscher 1958

Moscow, Peking and Arab Nationalism

Source: The Reporter, 4 September 1958. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The events of this summer have brought to light, with somewhat artificial sharpness, the fact that Soviet foreign policy is no longer made in Moscow alone, that Peking plays an essential part in formulating it, and that Mao Tse-tung may have a decisive say at crucial moments. For some time past this had been obvious to close students of Russo – Chinese relations, but since the conference that Khrushchev and Mao held in Peking from 31 July to 3 August, it has become not only generally accepted but frequently overstated.

The circumstances of the Mao – Khrushchev meeting were indeed unusual. This was the first time that the Soviet leader had gone to China as premier. He undertook the visit at a moment of particularly intense diplomatic activity, interrupting for a while his copious correspondence with Western statesmen about the summit meeting, which had been so long delayed and which allegedly brooked no delay.

For three full days he and Mao, with their Ministers of Defence and advisers, deliberated behind closed doors. They had important issues to thrash out and differences to settle; and when Khrushchev emerged from the council chamber he announced that for the time being he would have no East – West summit meeting. It looked, in effect, as if that meeting had been replaced by a summit conference of the two Communist powers.

What were the issues discussed in Peking? The official communiqué mentioned summit diplomacy, the crisis in the Middle East, and the ‘danger of revisionism’. These are interconnected topics, involving the Soviet and the Chinese approach to all the major issues of war and peace. It had been known at least since the conference of the Communist parties held in Moscow last November that on two of these points, summit diplomacy and revisionism, Mao’s views were not exactly the same as Khrushchev’s. Already in November Mao surprised some of his European comrades by his ironic references to Khrushchev’s summit diplomacy.

Chinese Hard Facts: Mao’s line of reasoning, as far as it can be reconstructed, was approximately as follows.

It is foolish and dangerous, he argued, to stake too much on any genuine relaxation of tension between East and West. No amount of summit meetings can achieve it. Hostility and tension between Communism and capitalism are bound to persist. ‘Coexistence’ and ‘peaceful competition’ between the two systems mean virtually the continuation of Cold War, in one form or another. The idea that it may be possible by some act of wise statesmanship to put an end to the Cold War is ‘pure revisionism’, as unrealistic as would be the belief that it is possible to put an end to the class struggle at large.

If Stalin’s successors, whether Malenkov or Khrushchev, had any illusions about the possibility of a real détente, Mao further intimated, Washington’s attitude should have opened their eyes: ‘The leaders of American capitalism have had no use for any summit diplomacy or détente.’ To the extent that Khrushchev at the Twentieth Soviet Communist Party Congress in 1956 had fostered such illusions, he bore some responsibility for the spread of revisionism and for Tito’s behaviour. Tito’s ambition to keep Yugoslavia ‘outside the two power blocs’ was being dictated primarily by his belief in an eventual accommodation between the power blocs. To some extent, therefore, Mao held that Molotov’s criticisms of Khrushchev’s diplomacy were justified.

It did not follow, however, according to Mao, that Communist diplomacy and propaganda should remain as rigid as they were under Molotov. They should display far greater initiative in placing the odium for the Cold War on the West, in deriving from every situation as much profit for the Soviet bloc as possible, and in preventing the Cold War from turning hot. But fear of war should not be, as it tended to become, the dominant motive of Soviet and Communist policy. Soviet diplomacy, like its American counterpart, must not be afraid of going to the brink of war, if need be. Communist morale must not be allowed to soften, relax or fall into pacifist daydreaming – it must be shaken up and hardened by means of an all-out attack on revisionism.

Khrushchev has tried to take up a centre position between Mao and the ‘revisionists’ and to patch up the differences. Last fall and during the subsequent months, partly under the pressure of events and partly as a result of complex developments in Soviet domestic policy that caused Khrushchev to fear a line-up between Mao and the Russian Stalinists or neo-Stalinists, he accepted Mao’s demand for an open attack on the revisionists. The new conflict with Yugoslavia and Nagy’s execution followed. At this price Khrushchev still hoped to save his summit diplomacy. He had been encouraged in this hope by President Eisenhower’s apparent agreement, expressed in January, to hold a summit conference. As the months passed without bringing the summit meeting any nearer, Khrushchev’s position became more and more embarrassing; and there was increasing pressure on him to abandon summit diplomacy and all that it implied.

He was, it seems, on the point of abandoning it when the Americans landed in Lebanon and the British in Jordan. For a few days there was genuine alarm in Moscow. Khrushchev and his advisers viewed the landings as operations designed to obtain bridgeheads for an immediate Western attack on Iraq and possibly on the United Arab Republic.

In this situation Khrushchev resolved to do two things at once: to go to the brink of war and to make a dramatic effort to save his summit diplomacy. On 19 July, he proposed an urgent summit meeting to be held at three days’ notice; and he accompanied the proposal by the announcement that important Soviet military manoeuvres were opening on the USSR’s Middle Eastern frontiers and by the statement that ‘the guns are already beginning to fire’.

His dual purpose was to ‘deter’ a British – American attack on Iraq and on the United Arab Republic and to use the acute crisis for inducing the Western powers to consider at last, at a summit conference, his schemes for ‘neutralisation’ of the Middle East and partial disarmament. He apparently succeeded in his first purpose (or so at least it is thought in Moscow) and failed in the second. The British and the Americans committed themselves to refrain from hostilities against the new regime in Iraq and the UAR; but they still refused to hold a summit conference on Khrushchev’s terms. This was the final failure of his summit diplomacy; but he could use the apparent or real success of his ‘deterrents’ to veil the failure.

Khrushchev Along the Brink: The Middle Eastern crisis, however, had also revealed something like a crisis in Soviet – Chinese relations. When in July Khrushchev himself went to the brink, it seemed for a moment that the Chinese were either not aware where the brink was or that they were pushing him to go beyond it. Even outsiders could see how much in those critical days Moscow and Peking were at cross purposes.

There was a striking discrepancy between the anti-Western demonstrations in Moscow and those in Peking. In Moscow, the demonstrations were a relatively minor, though significant, incident. In Peking, they were played up and made into a great national event. Though perhaps a hundred thousand Russians came to shout ‘Hands off the Lebanon and Jordan!’ in front of the British and American embassies, no leading political personality addressed the demonstrators. In Peking over a million people were marched out, and gigantic meetings were reported from all over the country. Top party leaders and Arab envoys addressed the crowds in Peking and the language they used was far more vehement than anything that was being said in Moscow. The cry for an early liberation of Formosa went up again. While the Russians dwelt anxiously on the ‘catastrophic’ consequences of Western policy, the Chinese premier said in interviews that the Western intervention in the Middle East had served a good purpose because it had let loose a wave of anti-imperialist emotion throughout the world.

It was the revelation of this discrepancy between Moscow’s and Peking’s reactions to the events in the Middle East that sent a gravely disturbed Khrushchev on his journey to China. Having gone to the brink, the Soviet premier evidently felt disconcerted by the noisy Chinese back-seat driving. He knew that on some future occasion he might have to go to the brink once again; and he was afraid of having to do so while exposed to dangerous prodding by his Chinese allies. There was, in short, an urgent need for a coordination of Moscow’s and Peking’s policies and reactions.

During the three days of Mao’s and Khrushchev’s conference there were hard bargaining and mutual concessions. It was not that Mao simply dictated policy to Khrushchev; he had to give as much as he took. While Khrushchev called off the planned summit meeting over the Middle East, Mao acknowledged publicly the merits of summit diplomacy at large and recognised beforehand that Khrushchev would act correctly if he sought another summit meeting on some future occasion. In their joint communiqué, the accents of bellicosity and the emphasis on peaceful Russo – Chinese intentions were finely balanced in such a way as to reconcile the conflicting moods and attitudes. Even on the subsidiary point of revisionism, the Chinese did not have it all their way: revisionism was defined as ‘the chief danger within the Communist movement’. In other words, Titoism was recognised as a current within Communism and not, as the Chinese had tended to treat it, as an external force hostile to Communism. During his three days in Peking, Khrushchev made his ‘ideological’ adjustments to Mao, but at the same time he gave Mao an emphatic ‘lesson in statesmanship’.

The outcome of the conference was therefore a token of coordination and compromise, which is not, however, likely to prove very stable. The patchwork of official formulas has not removed the underlying conflict of attitudes and moods. And in addition to the old divergences, a new dissension between Moscow and Peking appears to be developing over Communist policy towards Arab nationalism.

A Couple of Premises: Khrushchev’s diplomacy has been committed to the support of Arab nationalism and of Nasser as its chief exponent. Moscow has reaffirmed this commitment by recognising, with almost no delay, Iraq’s republican regime, and taking it for granted that this regime represents a local variety of Nasserism. This does not mean, however, that the Soviet attitude towards Arab nationalism is as unequivocal and free from mental reservations as it appears to be, or that it is completely shared by the Chinese. To understand that attitude properly, a few of its so-called ideological premises have to be briefly examined.

The main premise is that the present ferment in the Middle East represents a phase of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ in the course of which most of the Arab peoples are bound to achieve unity and to constitute themselves into a single nation-state. From this point of view, the present constellation of Arab states is seen as an anachronism kept in being by feudal survivals of a tribal past, the interests of a few corrupt princelings, and Western imperialist influences. At last, so the argument runs, the Arab peoples are surmounting the divisions by which they have been split, becoming conscious of their essential unity.

This ‘bourgeois revolution’ promises to put a definite end to Western predominance in the Middle East and ultimately to abolish the spurious sovereignties of the petty Arab states, artificially fostered by the West after the First World War, and to substitute for them a sovereign Pan-Arab Republic – in the same way in which a century earlier the Germans or the Italians in their striving for national integration abolished their numerous ‘independent’ principalities.

In the light of this conception, the federation of Egypt and Syria was merely the beginning of a far wider upheaval that is engulfing Iraq and is bound to engulf other Arab states and merge them into one political entity. From this viewpoint, too, the Western commitments to preserve the separate sovereignties of the existing Arab states are legalistic excuses for counter-revolutionary intervention, to which the Soviet and Chinese reply is obvious.

What makes the situation awkward for Moscow and Peking is the fact that bourgeois leaders are really at the head of this bourgeois revolution. True, Nasser, Kassem and their friends do not represent directly the Arab bourgeoisie, which is too weak and too poor in political tradition to be able to exercise effective leadership. They represent the young Arab officers’ corps; but in the eyes of the Communists, they are nevertheless spokesmen of the middle class rather than of the toiling masses. Their role is comparable to that played by the Young Turks and Kemal Pasha in liquidating the Ottoman Empire and establishing a republic. Their role resembles even more closely the part that Chiang Kai-shek played in the early stages of his career, when at the head of the Kuomintang he led the movement for China’s unification and independence. Khrushchev supports Nasser as Lenin supported Kemal Pasha in the early 1920s and as Stalin backed Chiang Kai-shek in 1924-27 and, intermittently, even later.

These analogies point to the difficult problem that Arab nationalism presents to Moscow and Peking: can Communists trust the bourgeois leaders of this national revolution? Khrushchev’s association with Nasser has been a relatively cautious and cool affair compared with the ‘warm friendship’ that bound Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek at a time when Chiang was an honorary member of the Executive of the Third International. Yet it did not take a long time for that friendship to give way to hostility and for Chiang to grow increasingly conservative and turn towards the West. ‘Is Nasser going to go Chiang’s way?’ This, we may be sure, is the question that Khrushchev has had to discuss more than once with his colleagues in the Presidium of the Soviet Communist Party.

Which Way Nasser? If Nasser were to follow in Chiang’s footsteps, then, of course, a Pan-Arabia united under his leadership would become an embarrassing neighbour or even a potential enemy for the Soviet Union. Hence the slight but distinct undertone of reserve behind all of Khrushchev’s cordialities towards Nasser. Early this summer, during Nasser’s first visit in Moscow, the Soviet leaders refrained from endorsing unduly aggressive expressions of Nasserite hostility towards Israel, and the Egyptian repercussions of the visit were not altogether pleasing to Moscow. It looked as if Nasser were becoming anxious to keep his distance from the Soviet bloc. Moscow then watched Nasser’s next move uneasily: the visit he paid Marshal Tito precisely at a moment when relations between Russia and Yugoslavia had become tense. Was Nasser perhaps beginning to go Chiang Kai-shek’s way?

But unlike Chiang Kai-shek, Nasser does not have to contend with a strong and dynamic Communist movement in his country. The emergence of such a movement would undoubtedly disturb the present relationship between the USSR and Arab bourgeois nationalism. Its absence allows their close cooperation to continue, especially since Khrushchev is not prepared to compromise his diplomatic game in the Middle East for the sake of a ‘mere handful’ of Communists whom Nasser keeps in jail.

Further, Russia’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the Arabs is far stronger than it ever was vis-à-vis Kuomintang China. Thirty or even twenty years ago, there was little that Stalin could do to tie China to Russia economically. Russia was then still underdeveloped industrially, unable to make its weight felt in foreign markets, and labouring under a desperate shortage of technicians, engineers and skilled workers. All this has changed radically.

This year more than half of the foreign trade of the United Arab Republic is with the Soviet bloc. Russia offers Egyptian cotton-growers a steady and expanding market. Soviet technicians contribute to many important development schemes in the Middle East, schemes put into operation with the help of Soviet credits granted at extremely low interest rates. And many young Arabs obtain scientific and industrial training in Soviet universities and factories. It is not easy to cut or loosen such ties.

Another important factor is Western policy, which, with its record of colonialism, its short-sightedness and its backing of the most unpopular elements in the Arab countries, seems to be tailor-made to drive Arab nationalism into the Soviet orbit. Just when Nasser was half-defying Moscow and was closeted with Tito, the American and British landings in the Middle East sent him rushing back to Moscow – in a plane borrowed from Tito – in order to seek reassurance there.

But even if Nasser is not going Chiang’s way, the concord between Moscow and Cairo remains somewhat superficial, and it may become disturbed as a result of the divergences between the Soviet and the Chinese attitudes towards Arab nationalism. Khrushchev and his colleagues are compelled to weigh their commitments towards the Arabs against the diplomatic and military risks to which these commitments may expose them. Mao Tse-tung, who has little diplomatic contact with the West, is less inclined to strike any cautious balance between ‘ideology’ and diplomacy.

Looking for an Arab Mao: The Chinese attitude towards Pan-Arab aspirations seems to differ from the Russian in two important respects.

The Chinese are more willing than the Russians to go all the way in backing the Arab striving for unification. They themselves have only recently achieved the unity and centralisation of China, and naturally they view the Arab world through the prism of their own experience. The Russians, on the other hand, are more aware of the centrifugal forces in the Arab world and of the fact that the various small Arab states, however artificial their origins, have acquired legal and political identities of their own, which cannot be abolished or merged without provoking the gravest international crisis and possibly even world war.

The Chinese leaders, or at least some of them, also seem to be critical of the manner in which their Russian comrades treat Nasser. Even if Moscow must deal with Nasser and his like, the Chinese would prefer it to give more encouragement to the Arab Communists so that someday an Arab Mao might emerge to take over from the bourgeois nationalists.

Moscow, however, appears to take it for granted that Communism is, and will in the near future remain, a negligible factor in Middle Eastern politics. On the face of it, Mao has, of course, accepted the ‘Soviet leadership’ of the Communist camp; and this obliges him outwardly to follow the Soviet line.

These divergences and latent strains, however important in themselves and as pointers to the future, need not prevent the Soviet leaders from maintaining their alliance with the Arab nationalists in its present form for some time yet and deriving from it the maximum of immediate advantage.