The Socialist Sixth of the World - Hewlett Johnson


Written on November second, 1939

The chief reason for writing this book was to further a better understanding of the U.S.S.R. And when I am asked why I undertook this thankless task, my answer is threefold. Because it was necessary to tell the truth. Because it was necessary to understand the experiment which is being attempted on a continental scale by Russia. And in order, in the interests of peace, to influence men’s minds in the direction of warmer relationships between Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Without agreement with Russia war seemed inevitable.

Alas, events have moved too swiftly, and war has overtaken us. I had found it hard to believe that our governing class were so blind and stupid as to prefer war to shaking hands with the Soviets. Yet that, in simple English, records the tragedy of this year. The object of this epilogue is to try to correct and cure the distortions, misrepresentations, and lack of understanding of the Soviet Union, in order that, even at I his laic hour, we may still win the sympathies of that great country and prevent her from moving into a conflict against us.

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See, then, the events of the past years and months if possible, through Soviet eyes. Before the last World War we had the spectacle of the great imperialistic Powers playing at power politics, the essence of which lies in the belief that force—with its attributes of cunning, treachery, deceit, lies, and broken promises—is the only and final arbiter betwixt nations. Power politics implies the absence of good morality. In the realm of power polities, and for the “welfare of the nation “, statesmen will perform acts, pursue policies, and employ methods from which in their private lives they would shrink with horror. Power politics led to the clash of rival imperialisms in the Great War 1914-1918, which shook the capitalist system to its very foundations. Gigantic forces were unleashed, from which, after untold suffering, the first successful socialist revolution emerged.

For a brief while after the War both peoples and governing classes appeared to have learned a lesson, and the close of the War saw a valiant attempt to put relations between countries on the new moral level of justice, order, respect for law and the abandonment of the use of force in the settlement of disputes. The League of Nations was born.

Of the sincerity of these attempts of the leopard to change his spots, the U.S.S.R. was from the first sceptical. Too frequently the League, alike in its actions and in the utterances of its leading Powers, appeared to be directed towards carrying on, in another form, the wars of intervention against the U.S.S.R., rather than in building up a new peace system.

These wars of intervention had left an ineffaceable mark upon Russian minds, best illustrated by the appeal made to the world’s workers by Chicherin, the Commissar for Foreign Affairs of April 18th, 1919:

“It is none other than your rulers who are keeping civil war alive among us by giving help to counter-revolutionaries and creating hunger and unemployment by the criminal blockade of Soviet Russia.”

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We have heard recently a great deal about “encirclement.” Who will deny the constant and continual efforts of the great capitalist Powers, more often than not led by Great Britain, to isolate and encircle the Soviet Union?

The Genoa Conference in 1922 and Locarno in 1925 are cases in point. At Genoa the Soviet delegates were informed that their country would be aided to repair the ravages of war and civil war on condition that it gave up its plans for socialism. The same Conference pushed defeated Germany entirely on one side, treating her as a pariah. Germany and Russia, thus thrown together, formed the Treaty of Rapallo, beginning thereby a long series of contacts broken only during the five years, which we shall examine later when the Soviet Government sought, through the aid of the democratic governments and to the annoyance of Germany, to make the League of Nations a success.

The Treaty of Locarno banded France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Belgium together for peace and obviously against Russia; a secret injudiciously revealed by Ormesby-Gore, a Cabinet Minister, when he said :

“The solidarity of Christian civilization is necessary to stem the most sinister growth that has arisen in European history. . . . Locarno means that so far as the present government of Germany is concerned, it is detached from Russia and is throwing in its lot with the Western party.”

In fact, the one constant factor in the years between 1917 and 1939 in British foreign policy has been our hatred and detestation of the Soviet Union. Whenever possible we have tried to damage her. We may recall the Red election of 1924 and the forged Zinovieff Letter, with its sequel the raid upon “Arcos” and the breaking off of all trade negotiations. Or the Metro-Vick trial of 1933, when we proclaimed our agents innocent when one had already pleaded guilty, and our Ambassador left for London in response to a telegraphic order requesting him to return to England immediately for consultation; a situation which nearly led to a complete rupture between the two countries.

This incident has a peculiar importance in connexion with the events of the past few months, for the behaviour of Mr. Strung in 1934 to the highest Soviet Court of Justice at the commencement of the trial, surely made him an unsuitable spokesman for England in 1939. Mr. Strang was at that time the diplomatic official who became our chargé d’affaires when the British Ambassador left Moscow. Was it malignity or ineptitude that sent Mr. Strang to “speed up” our talks with the Kremlin in June? The leaders of the Kremlin have long memories.

A review of the past twenty years leaves one astonished at the continued tolerance shown by the Soviet Union. The explanation must surely lie in its own desire for peace as essential for social development, and because it has seen that to use Litvinov’s phrase, “peace is indivisible” – that once the dogs of war are unleashed no country can remain aloof and untouched.

The Soviet Union has no illusions. It does not want war. Its record for peace is unchallenged and unchallengeable, both before and after joining the League. No single: State has been more single-minded and whole-hearted in the quest for peace. Nor has any State encountered more provoking and extraordinary obstacles.

Its historic first decree, issued on November 8th, 1917, the very morrow of its coming to power,

“proposes to all warring peoples and their Governments to begin immediately negotiations for a just and democratic peace. . . . Such a peace the Government considers to be an immediate peace without annexations (i.e., without seizure of foreign territory, without the forcible annexation of foreign nationalities) and without indemnities.”

Time and again this proposal was repeated At the Genoa Conference in 1922, G. V. Chicherin declared that

“the Delegation intended to propose, in the course of the conference, the general limitation of armaments, and to support all proposals lending to lighten the weight of militarism.”

Because peace and disarmament are inseparable (as are conversely armaments and war), the Soviet Union persistently put forward, in the face of world opposition and world jeers, its proposals for disarmament. At the Washington Conference in 1921, it declared itself ready

“to greet with gladness any reduction of the armaments or limitation of the military expenditure, under which the toilers in all countries are groaning”.

In 1927, at the Preparatory Disarmament Conference, it made its historic proposal for complete disarmament.

Its efforts to prevent the Disarmament Conference proving an utter failure stand in sharpest contrast with the action of our own delegate, Lord Londonderry, and his successful efforts to retain the use of the bombing plane.

With a persistence and resoluteness which we can only admire in perspective, whilst ruefully regretting our own opposition, the Soviet Union persevered in its efforts to win over and reinforce the position of peace. When the Kellogg Peace Pact was proposed, an attempt was made to keep the U.S.S.R. from signing it. This manoeuvre was defeated, and the Soviet Union was the first country to sign the Pact, pointing out, however, its lack of any obligation to disarm.

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In September 1934, on the motion of France, the U.S.S.R. was invited to join the League of Nations, and accepted the invitation. At the same time negotiations went forward for the Pact of Mutual Assistance between France and the U.S.S.R., which Germany was invited to join and which, in fact, was open to all nations.

This “Eastern Locarno” was ostentatiously cold-shouldered by Great Britain. Later, in the February of 1935, when agreement was renewed between Britain and France, we specifically “disinterested” ourselves from Eastern European questions, although how, under the League of Nations, we could do so it is difficult to see. Four years later we “interested” ourselves with a vengeance in Eastern Europe by giving unlimited guarantees to Poland and Rumania. The consequences are with us.

The attitude of the U.S.S.R. to the League in the period subsequent to its joining, and before the League finally collapsed, was meticulously correct, and that in no formal sense. For example, its relations with Italy in 1934 were friendly, if not cordial. A non-aggression pact had been signed in 1933. Yet it did not hesitate to jeopardize these in stigmatizing the aggression in Abyssinia, and in carrying out, even after we had tacitly dropped them, the abortive sanctions imposed on Italy, with the risk of driving Italy, as subsequently happened, into the arms of its opponents.

With regard to Japanese aggressions its action was no less transparently clear. From the first its attitude was one of opposition. Whilst we, through Sir John Simon, acted as advocate for the aggressors. And, whilst the British Empire and the U.S.A. in 1938 supplied Japan with 78 per cent, of its war materials, none came from the Soviet Union. Assistance was given to China alone.

In Spain the same story is repeated. Whilst we assisted in the murder of the legal Government of Spain under cover of “non-intervention”, the Soviet Union fought a lone battle for the observance of international law, and for the unmasking of the German and Italian aggressors.

In issue after issue before the League the Soviets words and actions are impeccable. To read Litvinov’s speeches fills one with an overwhelming sense of frustration and shame.

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Let us remember that the whole policy of collaboration with the League Powers was an experiment on the part of Russia. That it meant the subordination of old fears and prejudices. Let us remember, further, that on her side it is impossible to find a flaw in her words and actions. In that light read Litvinov again (Geneva, September 21st, 1937) :

“It may now be considered an axiom that the passivity of the League during the Manchurian conflict had its consequences a few years later in the attack on Abyssinia. The League’s insufficient activity in the case of Abyssinia encouraged the Spanish experiment.. The League’s failure to take any measures in aid of Spain encouraged the new attack on China. Thus, we have had four cases of aggression in the course of five years. We see how aggression, if unchecked, spreads from one continent to another, assuming greater and greater dimensions each time. On the other hand, I firmly believe that a resolute policy of the League in one case of aggression would have spared us all the other cases. And then, and only then, all States would see that aggression does not pay, that aggression is not worth while. Only as a result of such policy will the ex-members of the League knock at our doors, and we shall say to them gladly : ‘Come in’. We shall not ask them about their philosophy, and their domestic regimes, because the League of Nations recognizes the peaceful co-existence of any regimes in existence. And then our common ideal of a universal League, preserved as a weapon of peace, will be realized.”

In those words we read not only the tragedy of these past nine years, but also the thing that was to confirm the Soviets’ suspicions of our own good faith.

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Finally, there are the events of the past two years. Again, what is the record of the Soviets? Look first at Hitler’s aggression against Austria. What did Russia propose ?

“First and foremost [says Litvinov] arises the threat to Czechoslovakia, and then, as aggression is infectious, the danger promises to grow into new international conflicts. . . . The present international situation puts before all peaceable states, and big states in particular, the question of their responsibility for the subsequent destinies of the peoples of Europe, and not only of Europe. I can say on behalf of the Government that, on its part, it is ready as before to join in collective actions which, decided jointly with it, would have the purpose of arresting the further development of aggression and removing the accentuated danger of a new world shambles. It agrees to proceed immediately to discuss practical measures.”

That offer was rejected by England on March 24th as “inopportune”. Similarly, when on May 11th and August 25th, 1938, the Soviet Union stated that it would carry out its undertakings to France and Czechoslovakia, and asked for a “firm stand against the aggressors”, the statements were ignored. So also were the suggestions on September 2nd and 11th for a joint declaration of the U.S.S.R., France, and Great Britain in favour of the Czechs and the use of Article 11 of the Covenant. Finally, on September 21st, at Geneva, Litvinov declared :

“We intend to fulfil our obligations under the pact and, together with France, to afford assistance to Czechoslovakia by the ways open to us. Our War Department is ready immediately to participate in a conference with representatives of the French and Czechoslovak War Departments, in order to discuss the measures appropriate to the moment.”

Munich not only administered the final coup de gráce to the League of Nations, with an inevitable return to the system of power politics, but also drove the Soviet Union into an isolation which demonstrated to that country the dangers it ran of a Four-Power Pact directed against it by the capitalist and fascist Powers. “I was at a loss to understand”, wrote Lord Londonderry, “why we could not make common ground in some form or other with Germany in opposition to Communism.”

Soviet patience, however, was still unexhausted. After the final rape of Czechoslovakia on March I5th, the Soviet Government on March 18th proposed a Conference at Bucharest of Britain, France, U.S.S.R., Poland, Rumania, and Turkey. That proposal, had it been accepted, might have prevented the war. It was turned down by our Government on the grounds that it was “premature”. Poland went even further, refusing to sign any document with the U.S.S.R.

After this refusal events moved swiftly. Hitler seized Memel. We gave our guarantee to Poland (without consulting the U.S.S.R.), Mussolini seized Albania (April 7th), Britain gave further guarantees to Rumania and Greece (again ignoring the U.S.S.R.). Only on April 15th, one month after Hitler’s march into Prague, did we make overtures to the Soviet Union. We invited Russia to give unilateral guarantees to Poland and Rumania. It was an invitation to Russia to “pull the chestnuts out of the fire for us”.

Two days later the Soviet Union proposed a joint defensive alliance between England, France, and Russia, consolidated by a military convention, and guaranteeing all States from the Black Sea to the Baltic. No real reply was made to this proposal until May 27th, nearly six weeks later. This proposal remained the only one that the Soviet Union was prepared to discuss. It was, in fact, the only proposal calculated to meet the situation in Europe, as, too late, we now perceive.

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Without going into too great detail on the negotiations with Russia, which can be found easily and brilliantly expressed in D. N. Pritt’s “Light on Moscow” or W. P. Coates’ “The U.S.S.R. and Poland”, Britain’s policy during the five months preceding the war, whilst we were precariously balanced upon the edge of the precipice over which finally we toppled, was based upon a dual policy, that of keeping the door open with Moscow, whilst attempting still to come to an agreement with Hitler against Moscow. The latter attempt is shown by Mr. Chamberlain’s speeches; the attitude of The Times (particularly the leaders of April 1st and 18th); the Rushcliffe letter (a plea for further appeasement); the Wohltat-Hudson conversations (for a loan of 500 or 1,000 million pounds to Germany); the visit of Lord Kemsley to Germany, and finally his advocacy on August 20th of a Four-Power Pact obviously aimed at Russia.

The sincerity of our approaches to the Soviet Union can be measured by the following facts. That of the first seventy-five days of negotiations the Soviet Union took sixteen days against fifty-nine by Britain and France; the sneering reference of Mr. Chamberlain to Stalin on May 5th ; the almost complete refusal of the British Press to report the vitally important speeches and statements of Stalin (March 10th), Molotov (May 31st), and Zhdanov (June 29th): Sir Horace Lindley’s attack, after Chamberlain had “weekended” with him, on the Soviet Union and against a pact with that country, made in the House of Commons to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Conservative Party. The refusal in June by Lord Halifax of the Soviet invitation to go to Moscow, and the sending of a minor Foreign Office official (whom we must have known was persona non grata to the Kremlin, and whose presence could recall only the unhappiest of memories). And, finally, the composition of the Military Mission, all of the same unimportance as Mr. Strang, without any powers, and going by the most tortoise-like route. It took sixteen days for this procession to reach Moscow after our decision to send them. Ribbentrop took sixteen hours.

The final breakdown occurred over the refusal of Poland to accept Russian soldiers on Polish soil, an appalling example of the arrogant short-sightedness of the Polish governing class, and of the real sincerity of our desires for a military convention.

In concluding the pact with Germany, the Soviet Union in no sense embarked upon a novel and untried line: it merely reverted to the policy which had only been laid aside five years previously in the effort to achieve collective security through the League of Nations. The Soviet Union had already made pacts of non-aggression with many countries. It had indeed been willing to sign non-aggression pacts with all countries, even with Japan if she would have it, in order to lessen the danger of war.

It is not hard to see that Moscow had additional and pressing reasons for making the pact with Germany. There was constant and substantial fear that the Western democracies would seek to make common cause with Germany against her. Russian safety, in view of the repeated efforts of Britain to appease and win Germany, demanded an understanding with Germany.

Naturally the pact brought a shock of disappointment and fear to the Western democracies. The eager cry “betrayal of democracy” was raised, but mainly by those who had consistently denied that Russia could in any sense whatever be described as democratic. Others rashly assumed that the pact implied the renunciation of anti-fascist sympathies, which was as unintelligent as saying that the Franco-Soviet pact implied an abandonment of socialism.

We have the highest authority for stating that there had been no political conversations between Russia and Germany before August — that in fact it was not until the Military Mission went to Moscow that Germany attributed any importance at all to the Franco-British-Soviet negotiations. Then — for the first time, apparently — Germany thought there was a possibility of an agreement. The economic negotiations which had been languishing were renewed, and followed up swiftly with political proposals. What we were not prepared to do in five months, Germany, who never has had the childish illusions about Soviet military power current in this country, accomplished in as many days.

The conversations contained no plans for partitioning Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. On the contrary, the big mistake that Russia made was in her over-estimation of Polish military strength, so that the quickness of the Polish collapse caught her almost unprepared, and the Soviet Army had to mobilize and march within a matter of hours to prevent the Nazis being on the Soviet borders.

The fiction that it was the march of the Soviet troops that led to the defeat and collapse of Poland is refuted by The Times correspondent, September I7th, 1939:

“The Polish front has collapsed completely. . . .”

September 19th, 1939 :

‘‘Travellers who have crossed the country during last week report that again and again they have passed motorcars and taxicabs carrying officers evacuating their families . . . indication enough of the deplorable lengths to which the demoralization of the army has gone.”

October and :

“But that the Russian armies should stand on this line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace.”

The Daily Herald Polish Correspondent, on October 2nd, 1939, states that

“the Government lost its nerves when, on the fifth day of the war, the signal was given for a panicky flight from Warsaw. Polish refugees of all political opinions, including those who supported the regime, are now convinced that had the Government stayed on, had the highest army leaders all remained in the country, Russia might not have marched.”

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The collapse of the Polish Government made action by the U.S.S.R. urgent and vitally necessary if further minorities were to escape Nazi tyranny. These minorities, among the most harshly oppressed in Europe, rejoin the majority of their fellow-nationals, and have as much right to be a part of the Soviet Union as Alsace-Lorraine of France. Lord Halifax stated the case in the House of Lords on October 26th when he said :

“It is perhaps worth recalling that the action of the Soviet Government has been to advance the Russian boundary to what was substantially the boundary recommended at the time of the Versailles Conference by Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary”,

and a leading article in The Times of November 2nd, 1939, rightly observes that

“it must be recognized that White Russia and the Ukraine are a racial part of the Russian family, and the results of the recent election organized by the Soviet authorities in those provinces may conform pretty closely with the natural feelings of the inhabitants”.

Furthermore, Russia’s action was necessary if Hitler was to be prevented from dominating the Balkans through direct contact with Rumania. Russia moved across Germany’s path to the Black Sea. It was significant, as the military correspondent of the Yorkshire Post observes, that the German bombers had carefully preserved the railway from Lemberg across the frontier, with all its stations, depots, and rolling stock unbombed. And there can be little doubt that the murder of M. Calinescu was timed to coincide with the appearance of German armies on the Rumanian border. Had it not been for the Soviet Union, Rumania would now be under German control, with incalculable consequences to the Balkans, Turkey, the Mediterranean, the Near East, and our own route to India. The march of the Red Army made possible the signing of our pact with Turkey.

Finally, Russia’s action was necessary if Hitler was not to complete his control over the Baltic and the Baltic States. Instead, Russia has, in the words of Mr. Hore-Belisha, inflicted a major defeat on Germany in the Baltic. The News Chronicle military correspondent writes :

“The War Office, I understand, attaches considerable importance to this event. It had always been a substantial element in German strategy to dominate the Baltic Sea. Now it is dominated by Soviet Russia.”

Finally, the Estonian Government sent its “sincere gratitude” for “the new friendly agreements between our states for the further development of their good neighbourly and peaceful collaboration.”

The Soviet Union has, in fact, erected an invincible barrier against Hitler in Eastern Europe. It has shut its own doors against war and, intentionally or unintentionally, rendered valuable aid to England and France, thereby making more probable the downfall of Hitler.

Prediction as to the future is impossible and undesirable, but certain things at least seem probable. Stalin has as little intention of pulling chestnuts out of the fire for Hitler as for Chamberlain or Daladier. Peace will leave Russia far stronger than she was before, and, for humanitarian as well as other reasons, the Soviet Union doubtless is sincere in her desire for peace. War between the capitalist and fascist countries, on the other hand, is equally certain to leave the U.S.S.R. stronger, for Western capitalism, with its many internal contradictions, can ill withstand the strain of protracted conflict, and long before the war is ended the face of Europe will be radically changed.

And all the time, be it peace or war, the Soviet soldiery and peasants stand now along the line which stretches southward from the Baltic Sea along the borders of Germany. Russians and Germans arc no longer severed by an independent buffer State. Driven to desperation by prolonged fighting, with all its accompanying deprivations and miseries, the workers and soldiery of Germany will not be far removed from a politically educated soldiery and peasantry who know what they stand for : the liberation of the workers and the building of a new society. Dawn breaks over the east. And in that fresh dawn men see the promise of a new world, not a perfect world, and not a Utopian world, but at least a world freed from poverty and exploitation, and with heightened possibilities for all to work together for the common good — and a world where mankind, released at last from much that binds it to the earth, may find within itself a nobler and more enduring goodness and beauty.