Joseph Hansen

On the Politics of Outer Mongolia

(Winter 1956)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.17 No.1, Winter 1956, pp.30-33.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Nationalism and Revolution in Mongolia,
by Owen Lattimore
With a translation from the Mongol of Sh. Nachukdorji’s Life of Sukebatur
by Owen Lattimore and Urgungge Onon
Oxford University Press, New York. 186 pp. 1955. $4.75.

The history and politics of Outer Mongolia are not exactly high on the list of subjects of popular interest in America. In fact to most Americans Outer Mongolia is still as remote as, say, Korea once was.

But in December the Mongolian People’s Republic was in the headlines, forcing political attention; and everyone interested in world affairs had to consider the problem of its bid for membership in the United Nation’s and Dictator Chiang’s veto of that bid. The political provincialism characteristic of America thus got another jolt – although not as rude as some it has received – from the peoples clamoring for recognition and equality on the planet we share with them.

Lattimore’s book, appearing at the height of the squabble in the United Nations, could scarcely have been more timely. Unfortunately, its timeliness surpasses its substance – at least the substance that might have been expected from the author of Inner Asian Frontiers of China. Laittimore himself apologizes for the “defects” in his study. He explains that it “had, to be completed in odds and ends of time when I have been much preoccupied with legal and political matters.”

This is an obvious reference to his painful victimization at the hands of the McCarthyite witch hunters and must certainly be borne in mind in appraising the book. We can readily agree that the lack of rounded analysis should be charged up to the fascist-iminded Senator from Wisconsin who sought to imprison this specialist because he really knows something about the Far East, particularly China and Mongolia. Yet a mores rounded treatment, I believe would only have deepened some of the defects I have in mind, since to Lattimore they appear to be anything but defects.

Before coming to the points of difference, however, the joint translation by Lattimore and Onon of the Life of Sukebatur, which takes up half the book, should be considered. According to the jacket, “This is probably the first translation of a contemporary Mongol book to be published in a Western language.” Carrying the imprimature of the Propaganda, and Enlightenment Bureau of the Central Committee of the Mongol People’s Revolutionary Party, it is an official biography of the Sun Yat-sen of Mongolia together with a build-up for his now deceased successor the Stalinist Choibalsang.

Published in 1943, the Life fits into Moscow’s propaganda lime during World War II – advocacy of nationalism, “people’s frontism,” and subordination (really abandonment) of the class struggle. The Stalinist author Nachukdorji shapes Mongolia’s history of nationalism and revolution since 1911 to this pattern. He does so largely by projecting the line into the image he constructs of Sukebatur as national saviour. The closeness with which the biography mirrors the real life of Sukebatur is therefore questionable, to say the least. Sukebatur, of course, is in no position to defend himself, having died in 1923, unfortunate victim of “cunning doctors” who, if we are to believe the Stalinist author, dosed him with “poisoned medicine.”

Despite the heavy demand’s of Stalinist hagiology and Moscow’s general line, something of the turmoil and revolution in Mongolia since 1911 seeps through. There is nothing extraordinary about this. To exploit the revolutionary sentiments of the masses, Stalinist bureaucrats must talk as well as lie about revolution. That is how they attract and try to hold the following needed as part of their political stock-in-trade.

“Urgently Contemporary”

Lattimore’s essay is an attempt to account for production of the biography of Sukebatur. It is also an attempt at a basic explanation of the politics of Outer Mongolia; and, more important, an attempt to generalize the explanation so that it applies to all the satellites in the Soviet orbit.

In the opinion of Lattimore “the political life of a country like Mongolia is not only real politics but urgently contemporary politics. If this cannot be understood by modern Western men, it is not only Mongolia but the whole of Asia that cannot be understood.”

Amplifying this in his conclusion, Lattimore declares:

“If the topics that have here been discussed lead up to anything, as am introduction to a political document that was originally designed not to influence foreign opinion but to affect the thinking of the Mongols themselves they lead, I think, to the conclusion that Mongol politics are not an exotic study. There is much here, I suggest, that can be applied to improve our understanding of how other peoples are likely to act who have newly entered or are just entering the world of modern politics. Many of these peoples, but by no means all of them, are in Asia. At first sight, when reading in the Mongol and Russian sources about ‘monarchists,’ ‘feudalists,’ ‘reactionaries,’ ‘new bourgeois’ and so forth the terminology seems fantastically doctrinaire and unreal, when the events take place within a society primarily of herdsmen, with no industrial proletariat, no native private capital invested in industry, and almost none in trade. In terms of the potentials involved, on the other hand – the setting of a trend in one direction and not in another – it can be seen that the issues of the last few decades of Mongol politics have been real issues and the controversies real controversies.”

The essential facts underlined by Lattimore are the survival into the twentieth century of medieval conditions and a medieval psychology in Asia, the breakdown of these conditions and psychology and the rise of revolutionary nationalism at a grass-roots level. He offers the Life of Sukebatur as proof. His aim is to convince the powers that be in America to recognize these facts, to accept them as irreversible, and to shape American foreign policy accordingly. It was this political position that got Lattimore crossed up with McCarthy and the China Lobby crowd. His hope to influence the trend in the direction of capitalist instead of socialist development was taken by the McCarthyites as proof that he was a master “spy.” All he was really guilty of, in thinking that imperialist capitalism might be persuaded to foster democratic capitalism in the colonial areas, was utopianism.

In his eagerness to stress the revolutionary nationalism apparent in the Life of Sukebatur, Lattimiore misses something of at least equal importance – the significance of the specifically Stalinist character of the document. Moscow’s policy is to contain, or at worst control, revolutionary nationalism, subjecting it to the conservative interests of the Soviet ruling caste. Hence the biography is forced to play down the initiative of the masses, the inherent drive of their movement toward socialism, and the 1917 revolution in Russia as a pattern for achieving national freedom. From this we can conclude that the revolutionary potential in Mongolia must be, in general, considerably higher than the biography, taken at face value, would lead us to believe.

If this is true for Outer Mongolia, it can be taken to hold true elsewhere in the Far East. The validity of this hypothesis is demonstrated empirically by what happened, for instance, in China, Korea and Indochina. To paraphrase Lattimore, the study of Stalinism is not “exotic.” By putting Stalinism aside – which we can do if we know what it is – we are also able to put aside a considerable amount of distortion and thus reach a much clearer comprehension of the facts as they really are.

Lattimore’s Thesis

This defect in Lattimore’s analysis leads him astray in something even more fundamental. Despite the rise of nationalism and revolution, Outer Mongolia’s capacity for genuine independence, he holds, is quite low. How explain this contradiction?

“The outlook not only of nobles and high lamas but of the common people and the leaders who were beginning to emerge among them, was still confined within the framework of a feudal society,” says Lattimore; “and the feudal society was still so much the only known form of society that even ‘independence’ could only be thought of in feudal terms.”

This meant specifically that the top feudal personages, besides ruling the base of society’s “pyramid,” required a “patron” themselves in, order to move “with assurance in the ordering of their domestic affairs.”

Thus when the Chinese revolution of 1911 swept the Manchu dynasty into the ash can of history, the rulers of both Tibet and Outer Mongolia were impelled by their feudalistic type of thinking to seek a new patron.

“It is a habit of thinking in dual terms of authority over those below and the backing of a patron which explains why it was in the outlying territories of Tibet and Mongolia, where the most autonomy had survived, that the Dalai Lama for Tibet and the Jebtsundamba Hutukhtu or Living Buddha of Urga for Outer Mongolia, backed by the great princes, reacted instinctively or automatically to the fall of the Manchus not by striking out boldly for a full independence but by searching for a new patron. The Dalai Lama turned to England, or rather to the British government in India, and the Mongols to the Tsar because the need of a patron was a habit of their political thinking.”

Lattimore comes to a far-reaching conclusion:

“This analysis leads up to the new suggestion that I should now like to make: that the habit of thinking I have just described permeated the whole society of Mongolia, and not just the hereditary class of nobles and the self-perpetuating class of high lamas. It also affected the new leaders who were beginning to emerge among the common people. They were at a loss how to move from mere rebellion to real revolution involving great economic changes and a sweeping redistribution of power socially until they, too, were able to move with the assurance – and moral assurance was as important as assurance in the form of arms and other aid – of being backed by a patron of their own. This patron was the new revolutionary order in Russia.”

Four reasons, convince Lattimore that this is the right analysis:

  1. There were practically no “intermediate, evolutionary stages in Outer Mongolia between rebellion and true revolution. They jumped suddenly from rebellion to revolution when the Russian Revolution provided them not only with inspiration, and not only with a model for action and a standard for creating new insititutions, but with a political patron.”
  2. “... Russian writers about the Mongol Revolution are so often smug, complacent, and – to use the appropriate word – patronizing.”
  3. “Unwavering personal loyalty is one of the good and admirable characteristics of the feudal cast of mind ...” The Mongol feudal heritage can be seen in the “frank loyalty” of a Choibalsang, who was no “sycophant,” toward his “Russian backers.”
  4. “It helps to explain the fact that the satellite relationship of Outer Mongolia to Russia has been less troubled by conflicting nationalisms than that of any other Russian satellite.”

Lattimore believes that this approach

“... throws light not only on the Mongol satellite relationship but on relations between Russia and other satellites, and provides the beginning of a method for analyzing the range of differences among satellites, instead of discussing them, as is usually done, as if they had been, uniformly subjugated under a new colonialism as possessions, of a new Soviet imperialism.”

However, Lattimore is not so much interested in the range of concrete differences as in the abstract characteristics of satellites in general. (He compiles a list in a two-page chapter, Anatomy of Satellitism.) That is because he wants to stress the importance of Outer Mongolia as “the pilot model of the contemporary Soviet satellite state.”

As a complement to this analysis, Lattimore believes it

“... necessary to make a corresponding analysis of the peculiarly delicate and quick response of politics in a satellite country to political changes in the protector, or patron, or dominant country, for this response is of the essence of satellite politics and distinguishes it from colonial polities and the puppet politics of, say, a country like Manchukuo under the Japanese. An independent analysis is especially needed because the whole subject is treated by both Mongol and Russian writers in a way that is so stereotyped as to be virtually meaningless.”

“The Track of the Orbit”

Lattimore notes the following phases in what he calls “the track of the orbit in satellite politics”:

  1. In 1919-1920 when the Bolsheviks sought the defeat of Kolchak, Samenov and other counter-revolutionaries and an end to foreign intervention, “the principal activity of Soviet policy was to give the Mongols military assistance in driving out the remnants of Chinese forces ... together with Ungern-Sternbeng and the other ‘White’ Russians.” The same period saw Sukebatur and Choibalsang organizing their political party and Partisan detachments. “What was useful to the Russians at this juncture was Mongol unity – something that could not be attained, or could not be attained quickly enough, through revolution against the existing government, conservative and even reactionary though it might be.”
  2. In 1920-1923 when the New Economic Policy permitted a temporary and partial return to capitalist relations in the Soviet Union, the right wing of the People’s Revolutionary Party came to the fore in Outer Mongolia. These were bourgeois prototypes.
  3. In 1924-1927 when Trotsky led the Leninist internationalists against the usurping bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin, the factional struggle was reflected in Outer Mongolia. “These were the years in which the Revolutionary Youth League came near to being an independent second party, and the fact that it was regarded as more Left than the senior People’s Revolutionary Party may perhaps indicate that it was in this Mongol group that Russian Trotskyism found its echo.” But it was also a period of “Right deviation,” reflecting Stalinist support of Chiang Kai-shek in China.
  4. In 1929-1932 when Stalin, took over the program of the Trotskyist Opposition calling for industrialization and planning in the Soviet Union and pushed it to a bureaucratic absurdity, “the Mongols entered on their 1929-32 course of spectacularly unsuccessful attempted collectivization.” (The rudimentary state of Mongol industrialization and the incapacity of the Soviet Union to supply surplus machinery doomed the move.) The adventure was so devastating that in 1932 it was abruptly reversed. The correct course was declared to be “gradual development toward non-capitalism.” In the quarter of a century since, no attempt has been made to renew the experiment and Outer Mongolia still retains the structure of a “people’s democracy.”
  5. In the Thirties the bloody purge in .the Soviet Union was faithfully reflected by a similar purge in. Outer Mongolia. The turn toward “people’s frontism” was likewise mirrored in this buffer state as Japanese imperialism invaded and occupied Northeast China and Inner Mongolia.

All this appears to offer substantial confirmation of Lattimore’s basic thesis. It must be admitted, moreover, that a rough parallel can be drawn between the developments in Outer Mongolia and those in the other satellites in the Soviet orbit. However, it does not require much analysis to show that Lattimore’s approach is superficial.

American Feudalism?

Consider, for instance, his assumption, that the so-called patron-satellite relation reduces in the final instance to a feudal mentality so far as the satellite is concerned. What about the struggle over patronage that is such a big part of machine politics in the United States ? Does that reduce to a feudal mentality? Was “frank loyalty” toward Pendergast evidence of Truman’s feudal cast of mind? Or take the politics of the union bureaucracy in America. It is shot through, with the “patron-satellite” relation. Was Beck’s servile attitude toward Tobin a reflection of feudal economic relations persisting in the United States in the Twentieth century? Does the feudal environment of Taunton, Mass., explain, a Foster’s taste for Stalin’s shoe polish? We might even take the case of an enlightened expert on the politics of the Far East who seeks the patronage of the State Department. Does he thereby display his feudal mentality?

Suppose we admit that the urge to find a patron is really something properly belonging to the Middle Ages. How does it advance us an inch in understanding the politics of a Truman, a Beck, a Foster, a Lattimore? Still worse, isn’t it a bit – to use the appropriate word – patronizing to use this broad standard solely in explaining the politics of a ... Choibalsang? On what grounds are the primitives in imperialist America exempted ?

Shifting from feudal-minded individuals to the feudal structure of the country as a whole will mot save Lattimore’s theoretical tent from collapsing. In both World War I and World War II, and the period between, all the small European countries, even though they enjoyed advanced capitalist structures, were pulled toward either German or Allied imperialism. In some countries the opposing attraction was reflected in balanced factions of the capitalist class. Even where opposition to German imperialism was part of the “nationalism” of a capitalist class, being conquered by Hitler was sufficient to convert the foreign dictator into a ‘‘patron.” In perfect symmetry to each other stand King Haakon and Quisling, De Gaulle and Petain, typical political representatives of capitalist factions that in Lattimore’s logic would have to be called “feudal” in outlook since they sought “patrons” outside the country in order to move “with assurance in the ordering of their domestic affairs.” The truth is that the patron-satellite relation, albeit with, modifications, applies as much to the capitalist as to the Soviet orbit.

Lattimore’s basic concepts, taken perhaps unwittingly from the idealist school, thus lead only to mystification. To understand Mongolia and the whole of Asia, indeed politics on a world scale, we need a consistent materialist approach. Our fundamental! basis must be the world’s major economic system, capitalism itself. It is their experience with this system that fundamentally determines the mental outlook of the Asian masses. And their judgment of what to expect from it fundamentally determines their politics.

The Basic World Reality

The outstanding fact about world capitalism today is its decay. The Asian masses do not need to be propagandised about this. They learned about it in the hard school .of colonial oppression, under the “tutelage” of the Kuomintang and the heel of Japan’s imperialist armies. Even if they did not take lessons personally, they have heard enough to draw a few common-sense conclusions.

Next in importance to the decay of capitalism is its weakness. The capitalist classes did not succeed in uniting against the Soviet Union and the colonial peoples. Instead, they tore at each other’s throats in World War II. All of them ended up with gaping wounds and some with considerable loss of limbs.

In World War I the only real victor was America. Britain, although on the winning side, came out on crutches, as did France and the other Allied powers. In World War II America won, but as the head of a ravaged world economic system, emerged greatly weakened in relation to the Soviet Union and the colonial people’s.

Apoplectic rattling of the H-bomb does not compensate for this weakness. It only arouses fright and stirs the masses to more determined defensive action to prevent a Third World War.

To this we must add the really colossal fact that the Soviet Union not only defeated the German imperialist invasion, it came out of World War II as the second world power. The reasons for this spectacular rise from semi-Asian backwardness were perfectly clear to the oppressed peoples throughout the colonial areas. Credit was due to the planned economy made possible by the October 1917 Revolution.

Is it any wonder then that tens of millions of people in Asia, as an expression of “frank loyalty” to the Soviet Union, attempted to follow the path thus blazed out? That many of them still lived under feudal conditions actually facilitated this course, and not just because they were oppressed. Free from capitalist reflexes, they found it no great feat to step right across capitalism – at least in their consciousness – and see the possibility of building a better world than the one offered by the dying order of capitalism. That is why, in accordance with the law of combined development long ago noted by Marxists, their rebellions have tended to develop into “true revolutions,” turning the direction of Asian politics toward socialism without the “intermediate, evolutionary stages” of capitalism expected by a Lattimore.

Rejection of capitalism and longing for socialism are the two sides of the reflection in the minds of the Asian masses of the reality facing the world since the end of the war. Without taking this as the point of departure you can understand nothing about the politics affecting the bulk of humanity today.

The Third Chinese Revolution, one of the great consequences of these trends, become in turn a force tending to deepen and confirm them. The success in disposing of Chiang Kai-shek and beating off his imperialist backers demonstrated afresh to every fighter for freedom that his own aspirations were not illusory but completely realistic. Foreign capitalist support of Chiang, on the other hand, serves as a constant reminder of what this system means in life for Asia.

The Role of Stalinism

The appreciation by the colonial masses of the revolutionary meaning of the Soviet Union is perfectly understandable. The masses, however, ran into an unexpected and enigmatical paradox. They sought revolutionary leadership from the Soviet Union. They found instead a conservative ruling caste headed by a dictatorial regime fearful of their revolutionary aspirations but interested in what they might bring in the stock market of international diplomacy. Instead of furthering revolutionary nationalism, as you might conclude from Lattimore’s book, the Stalinist regime has done its best to contain and exploit it.

At the same time it must be stressed that fearful as they are of revolution because of the possibility that it will sweep them aside, the Stalinist’s make it an axiom of policy not to be out-flanked from the left. Under enormous mass pressure they can be forced to go much further than their plans call for. This has been exemplified, above all in China. Moreover, in face of great danger, as in World War II, they are capable of giving an impulse to revolution. However, these possibilities do not constitute the axis of Stalinist politics.

The existence of a conservative ruling caste in the Soviet Union is a fact that cannot be escaped. Its reactionary politics flow from its parasitic economic interests. Its regime is not the same as that of the workers in the time of Lenin and Trotsky. The truth is that it is the political opposite of the Bolshevik regime which it destroyed. To differentiate between the Soviet Union and its regime is not easy for the masses. Their tendency is to identify the two.

Thus we come to another component of Asian politics – the effect of Stalinism. This is visible in distortions of the struggle for socialism so enormous they tend to vitiate and derail it where they do not cut it off outright. The history of nationalism and revolution in Outer Mongolia is a case in point.

Furthermore, Stalinism assists the national bourgeoisie in Asia in taking on the protective coloration of “socialism,” giving us a still further complication.

Lattimore’s interest in feudal mentality as an ingredient in politics should attract him to a study of the origin of Stalinism. He will discover that one of its roots happens to be Russia’s feudal heritage, which the Bolsheviks could not overcome without the help from abroad that was denied them. If he followed the study through to the end, Lattimore – no doubt to his surprise – would find that the feudal mentality of the Stalinist “patron,” has a great deal to do with the attitude of the unfortunate Stalinist satellite recipient of “patronage,” particularly after the patron has had a few years in which to suppress opposition and build a servile machine as in Outer Mongolia.

The politics of the Soviet satellites simply cannot be understood at all without understanding Stalinism. The typical satellite, although Lattimore seems to have failed to note this, is one occupied by Soviet troops. Sooner or later in the occupied area, the bureaucracy to assure its rule is compelled to extend its own economic base.

The immense power of the Stalinist regime, the variety of forms of bribery at its disposal, its intolerance of political opposition or expression of independent opinion, its ruthless use of witch hunts, frame ups, purges and terror through, the occupying troops and secret political police are sufficient to explain the type of regimes existing in the satellite countries.

The point in brief is that while the movement away from capitalism and toward socialism must be sought in the general conditions of world capitalism, the particular form of the satellite regimes originates in Moscow. To hunt for an explanation in the “feudal” outlook of Moscow’s agents, dupes and victims really takes us out of theory into the realm of farce.

We expect a doomed ruling class to give up thinking; but need a Lattimore follow suit? The irony of it is that a victim of the witch hunt should carry frank loyalty to an ungrateful patron to such extreme lengths.


Last updated on: 23.2.2006