Isaac Deutscher 1965
Source: Isaac Deutscher, Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (Oxford University Press, London, 1966). These are notes for a speech at the National ‘Teach-in’ in Washington, 21-22 May 1965, in which Deutscher took part at the invitation of the Inter-University Committee. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
‘Was this war necessary?’ is a question often asked by historians of every major armed conflict. Historians and critics of the Cold War are also beginning to ask it. I am not proposing to do this. As an historian I am always conscious that it is far more difficult to understand what has actually happened and what is happening in human history, than to speculate on what might have happened; and as a Marxist I am not at all inclined to think that the Cold War, global in scope and now nearly two decades old, has been merely a regrettable misunderstanding or an incident which could be deleted from our affairs, an incident caused only by someone’s ill-will or imbecility.
I accept the fact that from whichever angle you look at it, the Cold War has to some extent been unavoidable. It developed directly from the tensions which underlay the Grand Alliance in which the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union were united in the Second World War. These tensions had been deeper and graver than those that can be found in any wartime coalition. But even if this had not been so, it was not to be expected that the Grand Alliance should survive its victory over Nazi Germany. The victory was too huge for the victors to digest it. The spoils were too vast; the unsettlement too frightening; and the disequilibrium of social and political power in the world too acute. Often in history, wars far milder than the world wars of our age were followed by reversals of alliances, when one power or group of powers was frightened by the new strength which their former ally or allies drew from the ruin of a common enemy. In the traditional terms of power politics and diplomacy nothing, therefore, was more natural than the reversal of alliances which our generation witnessed between 1945 and 1950.
We cannot account for the origins and the course of the Cold War merely in the conventional terms of power politics and diplomacy. Both technologically and ideologically history has transcended those terms. Mankind has reached the brink of the nuclear abyss and it has been torn internally as never before, divided over all the great issues of its social and moral existence. Who knows, if the dangers and risks confronting us had been less frightful, we might not have been able to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the cease-fire in the relative peace in which we have celebrated it.
Not daring to wage a war and unable to make peace, governments and peoples of the world seemed to have resigned themselves to the prospect of an interminable Cold War. Yet the danger is only too obvious that this Cold War may terminate in total nuclear war, and even if it does not, it has already inflicted and it is still inflicting on mankind devastation and wounds which are all the more terrifying because they are, for the most part, hidden from our eyes.
For what is the Cold War; what are its targets and what are its weapons? While still holding the threat of the physical holocaust over our heads, it delivers us immediately to the moral holocaust; it aims immediately at the destruction and mutilation not of our bodies but of our minds; its weapons are the myths and the legends of propaganda. It has often been said that in war truth is the first victim. In Cold War, the truth without which men cannot lead any purposeful and fruitful existence is the main and the total victim as it has never been before. And the weapons designed to crush and reduce to ashes the human mind are as potent as any of the weapons designed for physical destruction. And in yet another decisive respect the Cold War has already given us the foretaste of the fully-fledged nuclear war: its fall-out cannot be confined to enemy territory; it hits our own lands, it even hits primarily our own lands and our own people, it contaminates the moral texture, it destroys and warps the thinking processes of the popular masses in our countries, in all the countries engaged in waging the Cold War.
How did this tragedy begin? It is a commonplace of contemporary historians that from the Second World War the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two victorious colossi, staring at each other across a power vacuum. This suggestive image, though partly true, seems to me to offer an erroneous a priori interpretation of the origins of the Cold War and of its course. It puts the two colossi on a plane of equality, as it were, investing each of them with the same power, the same ability to harm the other, and the same threatening looks and gestures. I propose to show briefly what each of these two colossi looked like just before their clash and during it.
There could be no doubt about the power, the vigour, the health and the self-confidence of one of the colossi, the American. The United States had during the Second World War more than doubled its wealth, its productive apparatus and its annual income. And it held the monopoly of atomic energy. It is no reflection on the bravery and ingenuity of American soldiers, airmen and sailors, to say that this nation, the wealthiest of the world, had also the good fortune of having bought its victory at the cheapest price. Not a single bomb had fallen on American soil, and the loss of life the American armed forces had suffered was very small indeed. The American colossus, it might be said, returned from the battlefield with barely a scratch on his skin. And yet there was weakness in him as well, but it lay where he least suspected it – in his own bewilderment with his size and power, and, unfortunately also, in his complacency, self-righteousness and arrogance.
What a different picture the Russian colossus presented! After all his battles and triumphs, he was more than half prostrate, bleeding profusely from his many wounds. The most densely populated, the wealthiest, the most civilised parts of the Soviet Union had been laid waste. At the end of the war twenty-five million people in those provinces had been rendered homeless and lived in dug-outs and mud huts. The list of casualties amounted to at least twenty million dead! When the first postwar population census was carried out in the USSR in the year 1959, it showed that in all age groups older than thirty-two years, there were only thirty-one million men compared with fifty-two million women. Think what these figures imply. Can you imagine the dreadful shadow they cast upon every aspect of Russian life and policy? For many, many years after the war only old men, cripples, women and children could be seen on the fields of Russia tilling the land. Elderly women had to clear with their bare hands thousands upon thousands of acres of rubble from their native cities. And do you visualise what this deficit of twenty-one million men, what this lost Russian generation, has meant to the sexual life of the nation, to its family relationships, to its nerves and to its morale? I am speaking about this not in order to enlist here any belated sympathy with Russia’s ordeal, but to demonstrate to you how misleading are some of the images and assumptions which have become customary to popular thinking in the Cold War.
Yes, at the beginning of the Cold War the two colossi confronted each other, but one was full-blooded, vigorous and erect, and the other prostrate and bled white. This is the incontrovertible truth of the matter. And yet shortly after the end of the war the image of the Russian colossus, of a malignant colossus, bent on world conquest and world domination, haunted the popular mind of the West and not only the popular mind. In his famous Fulton Speech of March 1946, the speech that rallied the West for the Cold War, Winston Churchill declared that nobody knew ‘what Soviet Russia and its Communist international organisation intends to do in the future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive and proselytising tendencies’. He spoke of the growing Soviet challenge and peril to civilisation, of the dark ages that may return, and he exclaimed: ‘Beware, I say, time may be short. Do not let us take the course of letting events drift along until it is too late.’
A year later President Truman’s Message to Congress, the text of the so-called Truman Doctrine, resounded with the same urgency in proclaiming America’s duty to resist Communist subversion all over the world and in particular in Eastern Europe. A year later President Truman, already preparing the North Atlantic Alliance, spoke again of the Soviet Union’s ‘designs to subjugate the free community of Europe’ and the text of the Atlantic Alliance, signed on 4 April 1949, provided that ‘an armed attack’ against any member of the Alliance ‘in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all’.
Thus the leaders of the West in the most solemn and formal manner warned the whole world about the reality of the military threat from Russia. This threat served as the justification for the formal reversal of the alliances and the beginning of the rearmament of Western Germany. Yet, if one thing was or should have been clear, it was this: Russia, with twenty million of her people killed and uncounted millions crippled, for many years to come would not be able to wage any major war. She might perhaps fight for her survival if forced, but she was certainly in no physical or moral condition to undertake any large-scale invasion of foreign countries.
Any intelligent demographic expert might have calculated the number of years – fifteen or twenty – which it would take her to fill the gaps in her manpower. Let me also add that between 1945 and 1948, demobilisation in Russia proceeded at such a pace that the Soviet armed forces were reduced from nearly eleven and a half million men to less than three million. Only a year after the proclamation of the Truman doctrine did Stalin decide to restart mobilisation; then, in the course of three or four years, after NATO had been formed, after the rearmament of Germany had begun, he raised the number of his men under arms to five million. More than once in history had major powers formed alliances and even opened hostilities with the help of false scares. But never before had responsible statesmen raised a scare as gigantic and as unreal as was the alarm about Russia’s design for world conquest and world domination, the alarm amid which the North Atlantic Alliance came into being.
But what about Russia’s Fifth Columns? The various Communist parties subservient to Stalin? I would be the last to deny or excuse that subservience for I have exposed and opposed it for nearly thirty-five years, first as a member of the Communist Party and then as a Marxist belonging to no party. But it is one of the shoddiest myths of our time that Stalin and his minions have used the Communist parties to promote world revolution. It is true that anti-Communists as well as Communists of the Stalinist persuasion have purveyed that myth. But this does not make it more credible. In truth Stalin more often than not used the subservient Communist parties to slow down, to hamper, and even sabotage the growth of world revolution. He had emasculated them as organs of revolutionary struggle and turned them into the auxiliaries of his diplomacy. He had trained them to extol his tyranny, to praise his 1939 pact with Hitler, to justify his Teheran and Yalta bargains with Churchill and Roosevelt, and to damp down the revolutionary spirit of the Western European working classes in the aftermath of the Second World War.
In the first few years after the war the French Stalinists served gladly in General de Gaulle’s governments as its junior and meek members, disarming the fighters of the Communist Resistance and urging moderation on the workers. The Italian Stalinists, led by Palmiro Togliatti, did the same. It is indeed doubtful whether the bourgeois order would have survived in Western Europe, or rather whether it would have been possible to restore it in the years 1944-45 if the Communist parties had not, under Stalin’s inspiration, so willingly and zealously assisted in this. It is possible to argue that in the postwar revolutionary turmoil, Stalin did more to save Western Europe from Communism than the American administration did or could do; that he had saved France and Italy from Communism even before President Truman proclaimed his doctrine. We know now in the teeth of what obstruction from Stalin the Yugoslav Communists, led by Tito, accomplished revolution in their country. And we know also how cynically Stalin abandoned the embattled Greek Communists to their fate when they were crushed by British armed intervention.
The key to Soviet policy lay not in any design for world conquest, but in the so-called gentlemen’s agreement which Stalin concluded with Churchill in October 1944, on the division of spheres of influence in Europe. Under that agreement, later shame-facedly endorsed by Roosevelt, Russia was to exercise ninety per cent of influence in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans, while ten per cent was reserved for all other powers. Britain was to exercise ninety per cent of influence in Greece, and in Yugoslavia the division was to be fifty – fifty. To this grotesque gentlemen’s agreement Stalin adhered to the letter. Having granted the British a ninety per cent predominance in Greece, he denied the Greek Communists any help and he did not utter even a murmur of protest when they were being put down by force of British arms.
But, naturally enough, he felt entitled to exercise his own preponderance in his own zone of influence in a like manner. He began to impose the Stalinist regime on Eastern Europe. Yet more cunning than Churchill and working in a different social and political medium, he did not have to send out his armoured divisions to crush popular uprisings. He obtained control over his so-called sphere of influence by means of a method which was half-conquest and half-revolution. Yet, up to the moment when the Truman Doctrine was proclaimed, and even for some time later, he still acted slowly and prudently so as to avoid offending his wartime allies. In 1947 the leaders of the anti-Communist parties still sat in the governments of Eastern Europe, just as the Communists did in Western Europe, in more or less subordinate positions.
It was only after the Communists had been ejected from the French and Italian governments – and it was an open secret in Paris and Rome how much the American Ambassadors in those capitals had exerted themselves to bring this about – it was only after this that Stalin began to eject the anti-Communists from the Eastern European governments and to establish the single-party system. Then in June 1947 came the challenge of the Marshall Plan under which the United States offered on certain terms its economic assistance to all nations of Europe including the USSR. This was a dangerous challenge to Stalin’s government and it would probably have been dangerous to any other Soviet government. For American economic superiority to Russia was at that time so overwhelming, that from the Soviet viewpoint the Marshall Plan represented a threat of an irresistible penetration of American capital into Russia and Eastern Europe.
Stalin not only rejected and forced all Eastern European governments to reject Marshall Aid but, with the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, he carried the Stalinisation of Eastern Europe to its logical conclusion. And he finally pulled down the iron curtain over the whole of his zone of influence so as to render impossible any penetration of American or other Western influences. It goes without saying that his actions and the ruthlessness and brutality with which he clamped down a regime of terror on the whole of Eastern Europe provided in Western eyes a justification, one might say a post factum justification, for the Truman Doctrine and for the other measures of Cold War.
In examining any international conflict it is usually an arid intellectual exercise to ask the simple question: who had started it all? And I do not propose to dwell on this issue or to apportion the blame for unleashing the Cold War. As we look back upon the scene of the late 1940s it is, I think, quite clear that two of the major assumptions underlying the Western strategy in the Cold War were unreal: the assumption of a more or less imminent military threat from Russia, and the assumption that the motive of Stalin’s policy was an international revolutionary aspiration, indeed, a boundless subversive ambition.
I urge you to consider this central paradox of Stalin’s rule, a paradox which has had its effect upon the Cold War up till now. In his dealings with his own people Stalin was a most ruthless, unscrupulous and bloody tyrant; in his dealings especially with the members of his own party and with Communists at large, he was a fraudulent and treacherous manipulator; he had no compunction in extracting from the Russian workers and peasants their sweat and their blood. His great purges, his mammoth concentration camps and his insane GPU stand in history as black monuments to his infamy. Yet this treacherous tyrant was also in his way strangely strict and almost scrupulous in his dealings with bourgeois diplomatic partners. In these dealings he adhered always to the letter of his obligations with a certain Byzantine legalistic punctiliousness. From that letter he would snatch whatever advantage he could by processes of tortuous interpretation, but he rarely if ever permitted himself an open violation of the letter. Even in Stalinising Eastern Europe he still acted within the letter of his wartime agreements with Churchill and Roosevelt as he interpreted them.
And it may be held that he acted even within the spirit of those agreements. Had not Churchill granted him ninety per cent of control over Eastern Europe and the Balkans? And were Churchill and Roosevelt really so innocent as not to know or guess the manner in which Stalin would exercise that ninety per cent control? And even if they were, was this Stalin’s fault or the fault of his government? He stuck to his bargain, got the most out of it in Eastern Europe and did not allow Western European Communism to raise its head in the days of its strength and influence. It is now well established that in the years 1948 and 1949 Stalin was to the last opposed to Mao Tse-tung’s plans for the seizure of power by the Communist armies in the whole of China (although he was not even obliged under any of his wartime diplomatic agreements to exercise a moderating influence in China).
If the purpose of Western Cold War strategy was to contain Communism, then the historic irony of the situation consisted in this that no one contained Communism more effectively and no one could contain it more effectively than Stalin himself did.
We are confronted here with one of the great puzzles in contemporary history. When the leaders of the West spoke in those early phases of the Cold War about the threat from Russia, were they themselves seeing visions and nightmares, or were they conjuring up dangers in which they themselves did not believe?
It is difficult to give a clear-cut answer to this question. In all probability our leaders and Cold War strategists themselves partly believed in the dangers they conjured up. Nightmare and reality have mingled and are still mingling in Western Cold War thinking. The Second World War, like the First, had produced a genuine revolutionary aftermath of which our possessing and ruling classes had every reason to be afraid. But they failed to understand the phenomenon which inspired them with fear. They saw the social turmoil in which much of Europe was engulfed after the collapse of the Third Reich; they saw the dissolution of the old empires in Asia and Africa; they saw the rising of countless colonial and semi-colonial peoples; yet they could not believe, or they preferred not to believe, that this revolutionary turmoil had a dynamic force of its own, that it had sprung from all past history, that it was anchored in the aspirations of the peoples themselves, and that it was not and could not be anyone’s puppet creation.
The conservative mind sees in revolution, as a rule, the malignant intrigue of instigators and agitators, and never the outcome of any legitimate struggle. And so Churchill and Truman, and their associates came to suspect or half suspect that the great instigator and agitator behind the revolutionary ferment of the postwar years was none other than Stalin himself, their wartime ally. True, during the war Churchill had more than once expressed his appreciation of the essentially conservative quality of Stalin’s statesmanship. ‘I know of no government’, Churchill said in the last months of the war, ‘which stands to its obligation, even in its own despite, more solidly than the Russian Soviet government. I decline absolutely to embark here on a discussion about Russian good faith.’ Yet, only a year later Churchill was already denouncing Stalin in terms in which he had denounced Hitler.
In truth, Stalin’s policy was ambiguous. As leader of the new privileged groups in Soviet society, of the bureaucracy and of the managerial elements, he was primarily interested in preserving the social status quo within the USSR and without. This accounts for the essentially conservative character of his international policy and diplomacy. He was almost as much afraid of the revolutionary turmoil in the world as were the leaders of the West. He viewed with distrust and even with outright hostility the aspirations of the exploited and oppressed peoples, and yet as the inheritor of the Russian Revolution, as Lenin’s successor and as the head of the Communist movement which even in its degenerated condition still professed its Marxist orthodoxy, he had to present himself as the friend and promoter of every revolutionary interest in the world.
Wherever any revolutionary movement came to the top despite his obstruction, he had to assume the posture of its inspirer and protector. This was the posture he had first assumed towards the Yugoslav Revolution, this was the posture he maintained throughout towards the Chinese Revolution. Moreover, his kind of revolution, revolution from above, was indeed his answer in Eastern Europe to the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Stalin confronted the leaders of the West as a Janus-like opponent: one face conservative, the other revolutionary. And the leaders of the West reacted bitterly and resentfully, because their own political consciences were troubled. They had allied themselves with Communism against Nazism and the necessities of this alliance led them to yield up Eastern Europe to Stalin. From the viewpoint of their class interest and class psychology the leaders of the American and British bourgeoisie had acted a most paradoxical and self-contradictory role; they had yielded ground to their class enemy; they then sought to regain that ground.
Churchill and Truman tried to wrest from Russia the zone of influence that Churchill and Roosevelt had yielded to her at Teheran and Yalta. They sought to contain Stalin’s power at the frontiers of the USSR. This was the first programme of the so-called containment policy, its maximum programme of the years 1946-48. It failed at once and it failed utterly. It speeded up the disaster it was designed to prevent. It provoked Soviet power to erupt all the more violently, to cover hermetically the whole of the Soviet zone of influence, and to grip remorselessly the whole of Eastern Europe.
This first and almost instantaneous defeat of the containment policy was followed by another, by a defeat incomparably more vast and more momentous, the defeat in China in 1949. Here was a gigantic demonstration of the unreality of the major assumptions of Western Cold War strategy. No Russian designs against the West and no Russian subversion had brought about or could bring about the explosion of the Chinese volcano. Both Stalin and Truman had worked, each in his own different way, to contain the Chinese Revolution and the volcano had exploded over the heads of both. But while Stalin quickly came to himself and not only bowed to reality but assumed the posture of the friend and protector of the revolution that had won despite him, our Western Cold War strategists refused and are still refusing to face reality.
Shutting their eyes to the inherent momentum, to the innate dynamic force of the Chinese Revolution, they treated it as a result of an ignoble intrigue and as a Russian puppet. The vital lesson of the Chinese Revolution was that when any great nation struggles to re-cast the very foundations of its social and political existence nothing can stop it, and that the most clever containment policy is and will ever be impotent against the genuine element of revolution. If our statesmen believe that arms and diplomacy can stop mankind in its search for new forms and for a new content of its social existence they are only reactionary utopians; they can delay the process of world-wide change, they can make it more painful and spasmodic, but they cannot halt it.
Let me now consider another erroneous Cold War assumption. While Western strategists overlooked Russia’s real weakness in the early phases of the Cold War, when Russia was exhausted and bled white, they also strikingly underrated her potential strength. In the early phases, the Cold War was fought on the assumption that Russia would not be able to break the American monopoly of the atomic energy for a very long time to come. In those years we were told that Russia lacked the raw materials, the uranium ore, the engineering capacity and the know-how needed for the production of nuclear energy and for the building up of a nuclear arsenal. Later we were told that even though the Russians had managed to split the atom, they would not be able to pile up a substantial stock of atomic bombs.
Later still we were assured that though she may have a large number of atomic bombs, she would certainly not be able to manufacture H-bombs. And when this proved wrong the experts maintained that although the Russians had the warheads they did not and would not have the means of delivery that would allow them to strike at the American continent. Intercontinental ballistic missiles were supposed to be beyond the reach of Russian technology. For over twelve years, until the first Russian Sputnik broke into outer space in 1957, the Cold War was waged on the assumption of an absolute and unchallengeable American superiority in all fields of technology.
How could so much wishful thinking blind Western statesmen and experts? They sincerely believed in the unchallengeable superiority of the social system which they administered, the capitalist system, and they looked down with genuine contempt on the new economic system with the help of which Russia, in the worst of circumstances, was trying to raise herself from her age-old poverty and backwardness. They did not believe that that system could work. They dismissed all data about Russia’s difficult, uneven and yet tremendous economic and social progress as so much bluff and Red propaganda. Only with the great shock of the Sputniks and Luniks came the reluctant realisation of the fact that the Cold War had reached a stalemate, and that peace rested on a shaky and explosive balance of deterrents.
Yet again and again the assumption of Western and more specifically of American technological and military superiority recurs in Western strategic thinking until it is disproved by some new facts; and then it gives place to panic and fear. In fact, arrogance and panic seem to drive the policy-makers around in a vicious circle.
But let us turn back to the more political presuppositions and notions of the Cold War. We have seen how unreal was the notion of a Russian colossus bent on subversion and world domination. During the greater part of the Cold War, indeed until quite recently, Western strategic thinking assumed also that the Soviet colossus was a monolith, that the Soviet Union and China and all their allies and satellites formed a single bloc. We were told that Soviet power derived its malignant and threatening character precisely from this, its monolithic quality. Again, this notion had some limited basis in reality. Stalinism had pressed all its subjects into a single totalitarian mould and had imposed an absolute dogmatic, though unprincipled, uniformity upon the entire Communist movement.
As an historian I remain convinced that Stalinism would have never succeeded in that, as it did, if the Soviet Union had not been exposed to constant hostile and war-like pressures from outside. Those pressures enabled Stalin to blackmail the Soviet people (and foreign Communists too) into total obedience. Without the very real threat from Hitler, without the need to counter that threat with a desperate arms race, the people of the Soviet Union would not have submitted to Stalinist terroristic exactions as meekly as they did submit in the 1930s and in the years of the war. They might have refused to accept his dictates after the war if Russia had not had to rebuild her ruins amid new and dangerous pressures from the outside.
Our Cold War strategists thus helped to cement the Stalinist monolith. Yet the idea that the Stalinist monolith needed to expand, because expansion fortified and consolidated it, was completely wrong. On the contrary, as it expanded, the Stalinist monolith began to crack and to break up. Tito’s 1948 revolt against Stalin foreshadowed this development. By the time of Stalin’s death social changes and discontents inside Russia and dissensions between Russia and the other Communist countries worked against the Stalinist monolith. An epoch of change was opening in the Communist camp. A few of us here in the West, and we were very, very few indeed, saw the coming change and analysed its first symptoms. We were decried as wishful thinkers and false prophets; our Cold War propagandists and our Congresses for Cultural Freedom assumed that the Stalinist monolith was immutable and that it was going to survive Stalin for a long, long time to come.
Among Western statesmen only Winston Churchill, who was again Britain’s Prime Minister, kept his eyes and ears open. Shortly after Stalin’s death he sought to turn the attention of the Western governments and peoples to the ‘wind of change and the new movement of feeling in Russia’ and he urged his colleagues in NATO to see whether they could not come to some terms with Stalin’s successors. But Churchill, the proud prompter and inspirer of the Cold War, was now disavowed by the White House and by his own Foreign Office and his insight was ridiculed. We shall never know what opportunities to halt or abate the Cold War and the arms race were missed then. Suffice it to say that these were years when the Soviet Presidium was deeply divided between the faction that was determined to hold on to Berlin, and another faction favouring a Soviet withdrawal from Germany.
Those determined to hold on won the day, not without some assistance, one may assume, from Western irreconcilability. The notion of a Soviet monolith, the notion in which Stalinism itself had gloried, continued to dominate Western strategic thinking. And it did so even when the deep breach between Khrushchev’s Russia and Mao’s China became quite apparent to those who could read the signs. The first accounts of this breach – I myself was publishing them in the American press as early as in 1958 – were dismissed by official American spokesmen as utterly groundless. As late as 1961 official Washington was still declaring that those who talked about a Russo – China controversy were dupes of Soviet propaganda. Until the early 1960s the Cold War strategy still rested on the assumption of the Russo – Chinese monolith.
When this assumption, too, at last collapsed, the Cold War strategists swung abruptly to the opposite extreme and began grossly to exaggerate the extent of the Russo – Chinese controversy, and to exploit it. A new image of Russia began to make its appearance in the West, the image of an emerging bourgeois Russia which must be terrified of the growing power of China, the new dangerous colossus rising across her frontiers. All the malignant character that the Cold War ideologists had for so long attributed to the Soviet Union was now transferred to China.
Peking rather than Moscow was now seen as the fount of world-wide subversion, as the threat to world peace. Of course, the Maoists spoke to the West in an idiom more militant and defiant than that used by the Khrushchevites. Of course, their resentment against the West, especially against the United States, was and is very sharp. And the ostracism under which the United States has kept Communist China makes the resentment more and more acute. But all this does not add up to a Chinese menace to the West; and those who speak of that menace do so in order to justify the obsessive hostility towards Communist China shown by all successive American administrations. And so in the last few years Chinese Communism became the chief villain; and to drive a wedge between Russia and China was gradually becoming the declared new purpose of Western strategy. There is, of course, nothing reprehensible in the attempt of any power to benefit from the internecine quarrels of its opponents: it has been the loudly proclaimed purpose of Communist policy to benefit from the internal contradictions in the capitalist imperialist camp. There would be nothing inherently wicked in the American attempt to drive a wedge between Russia and China, if the wedge were not recklessly driven through the living body of the people of Vietnam and if it did not threaten the peace of Asia and, indeed, of the world. The American administration, I suggest, is dangerously overplaying its hand in Vietnam because it underrates the necessity for Russia to maintain some solidarity with China in the face of armed American pressure on South East Asia.
Underlying the Russo – Chinese controversy over strategy, tactics and ideology there is still the basic solidarity between the anti-capitalist regimes of the two countries. They can afford to quarrel only when the full blast of Western hostility towards the one and the other has abated somewhat. When that hostility mounts again and hits one of them, they must draw together. Last summer’s American armed forays in the Bay of Tonkin caused the gravest alarm in Moscow. Two months later Khrushchev, the advocate of a Russian rapprochement with America, and Mao Tse-tung’s chief antagonist, was overthrown. Whatever may have been the domestic reasons for that coup, the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department contributed to Khrushchev’s fall. Khrushchev’s successors set out to mend Russia’s disturbed relations with China; and although they have not healed the breach, they have stopped its continuous aggravation.
Whereas Khrushchev spoke of a Russian withdrawal from South-East Asia, his successors insist on Russia’s presence there. They are sending arms to Vietnam and talk of sending volunteers. Against the American intervention Peking and Moscow are speaking with almost the same voice no matter how much they actually differ. The clumsy and reckless wedge is achieving the opposite of what it was intended to achieve: instead of driving the Communist powers apart, it imposes on them a measure of unity. As at so many earlier stages, the Cold War strategy defeats itself.
From what I have said, it is, I think, quite clear that all the characteristic misconceptions and delusions of the Cold War are reproduced in Vietnam. Once again American policy is based on opposition to a genuine native revolutionary force. The Vietcong is backed in its struggle by an overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese peasantry, otherwise it would not have been able to hold its ground and extend its control over three-quarters of the country. No foreign power, no matter how formidable its weapons, can in the long run prevail against this kind of a revolutionary element.
The French have repeatedly found this both in Indo-China and in Algeria; and the British have found it in so many of their former colonies and dependencies. Unwilling to see this, the White House and the State Department are telling the world that the real culprit is once again a foreign Communist power – North Vietnam, and, behind it, the malignant Chinese colossus. The logic of this argument requires, of course, that military blows be inflicted on North Vietnam and, at a further remove, on China. And once again provocation breeds counter-provocation. North Vietnam and China and perhaps even Russia may all be drawn into the fighting in South Vietnam.
Escalation works both ways. And the world listens with dismay to wild talk that the United States ought to use this opportunity in order to destroy the embryo of the Chinese nuclear industry. Can we take it for granted that this wild talk exercises no influence on official American policy? And that the American leaders understand that Russia cannot afford to watch passively any massive American attack on any of the vital centres of China? And that a Soviet government that would try to remain passive might be overthrown within twenty-four hours?
In Vietnam not only American policy has reached an impasse. The whole Western Cold War strategy, having for nearly two decades moved in a maze of misconceptions and miscalculations and amid the wreckage of so many illusions, now stands helplessly before the blind Vietnamese wall. It is perhaps time now to draw the balance of this long and terrible venture, to count its material, political and moral costs, and to assess the risks. I am not setting my hopes too high. I do not see the approach of the great cease-fire that would end the Cold War.
To some extent, as I have said at the beginning, this has been and is an unavoidable war. The antagonisms and the tensions between the powers cannot be suddenly conjured out of existence. The conflict between capitalism and Communism, which some prefer to describe as a conflict between democracy and Communism, is not nearing any solution. The hostility between colonialism or neo-colonialism and the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America will not soon die down. But if the stark realities of these multiple conflicts are likely to remain with us, it may yet be possible for all the forces involved to behave more rationally than they have behaved so far, to lift from these conflicts the hysteria and insanity of the Cold War, the fog of myths and legends, and the suicidal intensity of the contest.
I still believe that class struggle is the motive force of history and that only a socialist world – one socialist world – can cope with the problems of modern society. But in our time class struggle has sunk into a bloody morass of power politics. On both sides of the great divide a few ruthless and half-witted oligarchies, capitalist oligarchies here, bureaucratic oligarchies there, are not only holding in their hands all the power of their nations; they have also obfuscated the minds and throttled the wills of their nations, and usurped for themselves the roles of the chief protagonists in social and ideological conflicts. The class struggles of our time have degenerated into the unscrupulous contests of the ruling oligarchies.
Official Washington speaks for the world’s freedom. Official Moscow speaks for Socialism. ‘Save me from my friends!’ – Freedom might say. ‘Save me from my friends!’ – Socialism must say. On both sides of the great divide the peoples have been silent for too long and have for too long identified themselves with their governments and their policies. The world has come very close, dangerously close, to a division between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary nations. This to my mind has been perhaps the most alarming result of the Cold War.
Fortunately things are changing in the Soviet part of the world, especially in Russia where the people have been shaking off the old discipline and the old conformism and have been regaining an independent mind and a critical attitude towards their rulers. Things are, I hope, changing here, in the United States too. I see a significant sign of the change in the determination of so many Americans to scrutinise and to argue out the assumptions of their government’s policy, assumptions which America has so long accepted without scrutiny and in virtual unanimity.
We may not be able to get away from the severe conflicts of our age and we need not get away from them. But we may perhaps lift those conflicts above the morass into which they have been forced. The divisions may once again run within nations, rather than between nations. We may give back to class struggle its old dignity. We may and we must restore meaning to the great ideas by which mankind is still living, the ideas of liberalism, democracy and Communism.