Isaac Deutscher 1961
Source: The Reporter, 5 January 1961. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
The November conference of the leaders of eighty-one Communist parties in Moscow was very nearly a revival of the old Communist International, which Stalin had dissolved in 1943. The Chinese Communists, it seems, favoured a formal reconstitution of the Comintern, whereas the Russians were against it. The Russians’ position was that they did not wish ‘to give Western propagandists a pretext for stepping up the anti-Communist campaign’.
Compared with this carefully prepared conference, the November 1957 meeting of Communist leaders was a hastily improvised and tentative affair. This time an elaborate agenda was fixed well in advance, and theses and discussion materials had been circulated among the participants a month beforehand, so that everyone knew what the controversial issues were and had enough time to make up his mind about them. It was indeed a matter of making up one’s mind, for it was clear that what was convened was not just another of those Cominform parades which used to be held between 1947 and 1953 after the Comintern was dissolved.
The Cominform, with its eight or nine member parties, was a relatively small regional body, whereas the Moscow conference was representative of an almost world-wide movement. And there was this startling novelty: for the first time since the Lenin era the Russians came to an international Communist gathering not to dictate their will and see it meekly accepted by all, but to defend and explain their policies against severe criticisms from ‘fraternal parties’. They had to reply to attacks not only from the Chinese but even from Latin-American and South-East Asian delegates.
In this respect the November conference was also very different from the last congresses of the Stalinised Comintern, those of 1935 and 1928, at which Stalin’s infallibility was accepted without demur and he did not even deign to speak in person. No such Papal privileges were granted to Khrushchev; and in the Russo – Chinese dispute – the quarrel, that is, between the two Big Brothers – it was clear that neither was big enough to lay down the law.
At the conference the clash of opinion was genuine, prolonged and sometimes passionate. It went on at the plenary sessions and in the various committees, which had been constituted almost in parliamentary fashion. To the embarrassment and even alarm of Moscow’s stiffer hierarchs, the course of the debate was at times unpredictable; and there was no lack of stormy scenes.
Yet both the Russians and the Chinese had come to the conference willing to compromise and strike a quick bargain. Even before the conference, both had dropped or toned down their most extreme formulas in order to narrow the gap between their respective viewpoints. The Chinese had ceased to repeat that ‘war is inevitable’ and to frown at ‘peaceful coexistence’. The Russians had withdrawn the most indiscreet of their ‘revisionist’ statements; Khrushchev no longer repeated that Lenin’s theory of imperialism was out of date, that world war was ‘an impossibility’, and that some Communist parties in West and East could and should take the ‘parliamentary road to socialism’. What then, after this preliminary rapprochement, kept the Chinese and the Russians at loggerheads, prolonging the conference for three full weeks?
Active and Passive Voices: The fact is that the more both sides narrowed the gap between their ideological formulas, the more real did the gap show itself to be. Even though the Chinese had come to Moscow somewhat remorseful about their ‘polemical excesses’ and ready to admit that they had gone too far in ridiculing ‘peaceful coexistence’ as a ‘dangerous revisionist delusion’, Moscow and Peking still had different things in mind when they spoke in favour of peaceful coexistence. To the Chinese this meant the avoidance of world war but the continuation of the Cold War and of the arms race. ‘We are, of course, also for peaceful coexistence’, they said in effect, ‘but does this mean that Comrade Khrushchev has necessarily to climb up the summit on all fours over and over again?’ They were against Khrushchev’s ‘diplomatic initiatives'; and as the discussion heated up, they went over the record to show that he had ‘sadly lacked Communist firmness and dignity’, especially during the Camp David period. They also declared that they saw no necessary connection between peaceful coexistence and ‘all that futile disarmament talk to which Western imperialism, in its insanity, does not and cannot respond, but which spreads illusions among our own peoples and causes them to relax more than is safe for all of us’.
The Russian answer was that what the Chinese stood for was merely ‘passive coexistence’, whereas they, the Russians, were for ‘an active policy of coexistence’. ‘Passive coexistence’, according to the Khrushchev argument, would be merely a drift into war. The state of world affairs, bad as it was, would have been far worse, so Khrushchev pointed out, if Soviet diplomacy had not actively striven for an international détente; and without this striving it might yet rapidly and dangerously deteriorate. Chinese ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘criminal light-mindedness’ in playing down the dangers of nuclear warfare came under angry attack. Khrushchev, admitting the failure of his disarmament efforts so far, nevertheless insisted on the need to continue these efforts. On this point, it is reported, he spoke with feeling, invoking the responsibility of the Communist leaders ‘before mankind and before history’, which would not forgive them if they gave up the quest for disarmament. Were disarmament talks with the West altogether futile? The Chinese, in speaking about the ‘insanity of decaying imperialism’, overlooked the fact that ‘the American bourgeoisie is divided against itself and one section of it sees clearly the folly of nuclear war and wants peace’.
Soviet diplomacy and the Communist parties, Khrushchev went on, must rely on the ‘sober elements of the Western bourgeoisie’ and must by their own policy strengthen the hands of those elements against the ‘insane imperialists’. It was easy for his critics to belittle the effects of his diplomatic moves; but should he sit back with folded arms when a new American administration was taking over? To the Chinese argument that ‘the Democrats are no better than the Republicans and Kennedy is no better than Eisenhower’, Khrushchev replied that this may be so but that it would be ‘an unforgivable error’ to take it for granted. He wanted at least to test the intentions of the new American administration, and, yes, to climb to the summit again. He is reported to have made an impassioned appeal to the conference not to obstruct his diplomacy, as the Chinese had done more than once. The delegates are said to have been greatly impressed by the gravity and urgency of his appeal.
If Khrushchev carried his audience with him on this point, the Chinese were more successful when they attacked his conduct of Communist policy in the strict sense. They accused him of ‘curbing the anti-imperialist struggle in Asia, Africa and Latin America’, especially in Iraq, India and Algeria. They attacked his ‘friendship’ with Nasser, Kassem, Nehru and Sukarno, and demanded that the Communist parties in those leaders’ countries should behave more aggressively towards them and the ‘national bourgeoisie’ at large. In other words, they said that the Russians, in the interest of their diplomacy, virtually sabotaged Communist revolution in the underdeveloped countries.
According to reports from Moscow, this charge was eagerly taken up by Latin-American, Indian and other Communists, whose parties are more or less divided between Khrushchevite and Maoist factions.
The Russians countered these accusations with the thesis that the ‘main form of class struggle’ in the years ahead was the economic competition between the Soviet bloc and NATO, and that all other methods of class struggle must be adjusted and indeed subordinated to this basic fact. Despite Sputniks and intercontinental missiles, they argued, the Soviet Union is still economically inferior to the United States. As long as this is so, they insisted – that is, for another five to ten years – they could not afford to provoke the Western bourgeoisie unduly by committing themselves irrevocably to the support of every revolutionary movement in every corner of the world. The Chinese held that the Soviet bloc was in fact strategically far stronger than the Russians implied; but even if this were not so, that was one more reason why the Soviet bloc should seek to compensate for its economic inferiority by throwing all its weight behind the revolutionary forces of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Over this issue centred much of the three weeks’ debate.
The declaration of the eighty-one Communist parties, as it was finally adopted with many amendments and corrections, strikes a balance between the Russian and the Chinese viewpoints. In almost every passage it aims at a synthesis between a Russian thesis and a Chinese antithesis. Only this balancing secured for the document unanimous adoption.
The unanimity was not achieved mechanically, nor was it merely apparent. The disputants were anxious to present a common front to the outside world. The Chinese have not been out to challenge the Soviet leadership of the Communist camp, but they have been determined to put teeth into Soviet policy. In this they succeeded to some extent even before the conference, as could be seen from Khrushchev’s behaviour at the United Nations, from his partial recognition of the Algerian provisional government, and from the changed tenor of various Russian pronouncements.
The Moscow declaration emphatically re-acknowledges Soviet leadership, but even in doing so it acknowledges China’s powerful influence. Thus, it echoes Khrushchev in proclaiming that ‘peaceful coexistence... or destructive war – this is the alternative today’ and in rejecting ‘American’, and by implication Chinese, ‘brinkmanship’ as ‘leading to thermonuclear catastrophe’. But the declaration favours the Chinese position in asserting that ‘the aggressive nature of imperialism has not changed’ (that is, that Lenin’s definition of it is still valid) and that ‘imperialism... persists in preparing a new world war’. The eighty-one parties accept the Russian thesis that the economic contest between the Soviet Union and the United States is ‘the main form of the class struggle’ at present; but they insist on the need to intensify the class struggle proper, especially in the underdeveloped countries. For the first time the ‘national bourgeoisie’ of those countries is openly described as a vacillating and undependable ally, liable to seek accommodation with the West; and for the first time Khrushchev’s friends Nasser and Kassem have been attacked for suppressing Communism in their countries. For all its elaborate character and stylistic élan, the declaration is not likely to put an end to controversy. It will rather serve as one of those sacred texts which each disputant can and undoubtedly will quote in support of his own views and policies.
Condemned to Mutual Tolerance: What then is going to be the effect of the Moscow conference on the international Communist movement and on Soviet diplomacy?
The international Communist movement remains divided into three wings: left, right and centre. These are in some respects the indirect descendants of the three rival Communist schools of thought of the 1920s – Trotskyist, Stalinist and Bukharinist. But whereas in the 1920s the contest ended in the establishment of the Stalinist monopoly and the suppression of all the other schools of thought, the present struggle can hardly lead to a similar outcome. Khrushchev, the leader of the Centre, cannot afford to excommunicate the Maoist Left. Nor can Mao afford to pronounce an anathema against Khrushchev. Thus they and their supporters must therefore go on arguing and patching up their differences as best they can. They are, so to speak, condemned to do this in mutual tolerance, which does not come easy to either of them.
This relative tolerance is quite new to contemporary Communism, which has been formed in the monolithic mould of Stalinism. It breaks up that mould, and it creates openings for viewpoints other than the Maoist and the Khrushchevite. One may doubt whether the conference would have been able to repeat, as it has done, the condemnation of Titoism if Tito and his party had not chosen to remain outside the organisation. Within, the Poles, the Italians and others form the right wing. In Moscow, this Right preferred not to speak with its own voice; it was glad to see that Khrushchev took the initiative for the attack on the Chinese, and it lent its support to him. In the long run, however, a three-cornered contest may well develop; and the dispute, which ostensibly is still between the Chinese and the Russians only, is already cutting across the various national parties. It is an intraparty as well as an interparty affair. There are ‘revisionists’ and ‘dogmatists’ in Russia and even in China, and in quite a few other parties. Among the South-East Asians and Latin Americans, the split between the Maoists and the Khrushchevites has already become more or less open.
The decisions of the Moscow conference foreshadow little or no change in the policies of the Communist parties of the West, especially those of Western Europe, where the relative stability of the existing regimes leaves little scope for revolutionary action in the near future. But the parties of the underdeveloped nations are likely to become more active and aggressive than hitherto.
This may be of particular importance for India, where the Communists of West Bengal, in opposition to their national leadership, have opted for the Maoist line. Expecting to score a great success at the next election, the Maoists of Calcutta hope to make of West Bengal a Communist stronghold, and declare that they will not surrender it to Nehru and his Congress Party as meekly as their comrades of Kerala surrendered their stronghold. An intensification of revolutionary activity may also be expected in Latin America, where Maoism has been gaining ground.
Leading the Leader: The effect of the conference on Soviet diplomacy may be considerable. True, Khrushchev has been given a free hand to make an approach to the new American administration; and another journey to the summit is about to begin. But the conference has also restricted Khrushchev’s freedom of movement and of bargaining. This is not to say that the eighty-one Communist parties, big, small and tiny, are, through a formal resolution, dictating to the Soviet premier what he has to do. It is rather that he can no longer pursue any policy in overt conflict with the Chinese and in defiance of the mood prevailing in the Communist movement at large.
That mood allows Khrushchev to pick up with President Kennedy the threads of negotiation where he and President Eisenhower had left them, but it does not allow him to go back to the ‘Camp David spirit’ with all the hail-fellow-well-met panache so congenial to the Soviet leader. The conference has told him that in any negotiations with the West he must be, and must be seen to be, a much tougher negotiator than he has been in the past. It has allowed him to fly once again to the summit, but it has somewhat clipped his wings before the flight.
Whether Khrushchev will act in the spirit of this instruction remains to be seen. If he does not, the Chinese, and not only they, will turn their heavy guns on him; and the ideological barrage will be fiercer than ever.
A real change has thus occurred in the background against which the Soviet government is going to confront the new American administration. The relative ease and freedom of initiative that Soviet diplomacy enjoyed between 1954 and 1960 belongs to the past. In these years Khrushchev rid himself of his rivals Malenkov and Molotov and seemingly became the sole master of Soviet diplomacy and policy. But now he has come under pressures from within the Communist camp far more powerful and severe than those to which he was ever exposed from his Russian rivals. The growing momentum of the Communist ‘one-third of the world’ has its impact even on Moscow. It shows itself in the fact that for all the renewed emphasis on the Soviet leadership of the Communist camp, the Russians can now lead only on condition that they also allow themselves to be led.
The ideological truce between Peking and Moscow is designed to cover the critical period during which Moscow will be testing the intentions of the new American administration. The results of the testing will have a decisive influence on the further evolution of Communist policy. Every move made by the new American President and the Soviet premier, every phase in their negotiations (if there are any), every bit of progress made, and every failure to make any progress will be scrutinised throughout the Communist world, and eagerly evaluated as evidence in support either of the Khrushchevite or of the Maoist line. The Khrushchevites will dwell on every event and incident that they may be able to interpret as evidence in favour of their policy of ‘active coexistence'; while the Maoists will grasp every straw in the wind to prove that no genuine compact between East and West is possible, and that nothing but uninhibited global class struggle can resolve the fundamental conflict by which the world is torn. In a sense, therefore, Mr Kennedy will be the unwitting arbiter of this inner Communist controversy.