Th. Rothstein February 1904

The Conflict in the Far East[1]

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. VIII No. 2, February 15, 1904, pp. 72-79;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

At the moment of writing, war in the Far East seems to be as imminent and as far off as ever before. Japan is waiting for a reply to her Note, and is bellicose; Russia, who is considering that reply, is soft as silk, and talks of peace. When Russia will have delivered her Note, she in her turn will cut a terrible face, and clash her arms, while Japan, who will have to answer it, will pathetically expatiate on her pacific intentions, and dangle before the eyes of the world the olive branch. The English Press, which is instigating Japan to draw the chestnuts out of the fire for this country, faithfully reflects Japan’s changes of mood, whilst the continental Press, being friendly to Russia, conscientiously performs the same diplomatic evolutions as the Chancellery of that Power. And so between the lively interchange of bluff and bluster, and the chameleonic transformations of the “great” political Press, the ordinary mortal who is not initiated into the Isidian mysteries of the European Chancelleries feels quite at sea. His hopes of yesterday are dashed to the ground to-day, and his fears of to-day are allayed to-morrow. For all he knows, war may break out to-morrow, or it may not break out at all.

Yet there is for those who are ever so little acquainted with the position of affairs in the Far East an almost mathematical certainty that an. armed conflict between Russian and Japan is at some time or another inevitable. It may come off now, it may be postponed till the spring, but come off it must, and that very shortly. On the one hand we have Japan, whose industrial, commercial, and social development constitutes one of the marvels of the last century – in fact, has for its brilliancy and suddenness no equal within the range of modern history. But this development is dependent on one essential factor – it must have China, progressive China, as a market. This enormous Empire, closely related to Japan by culture and race, lies quite near to it, and though to have it all to herself Japan knows very well to be an utopian dream, nevertheless, relying precisely on that proximity, close relationship, and intimate knowledge of the land and its people, Japan can very well hope to gain in time the lion’s share in its trade. And that is to her all-important, if she is to grow in the future as she has grown in the past. It is, in fact, to gain a footing in China, and to force her to open her market to her commerce that she went to war with her in 1894-5, and thought of establishing herself in the Liau-Tung peninsula, the key to the Gulf of Pe-chi-li and the Yellow Sea. China, or, if one may employ that expression, the free and unfettered use of China, is thus a necessity to her industrial development. But not less so is the possession of the great peninsula which overlooks the mainland, Korea. Through Korea, Japan had, in olden days, received her civilisation from China. In Korea she has been at home from time immemorial, doing with her the largest trade. Korea affords the nearest and most convenient outlet for her fast increasing and now almost overflowing population. By means of Korea she dominates the Yellow Sea, and consequently China. In Korea, lastly, she finds in abundance that most essential element of a modern industry – iron – the scarcity of which in her own soil was to her a matter of deepest concern. No wonder that the possession of Korea was always the object of her commercial and military efforts, and its attainment was the other aim of the war with China.

Thus the “open door” in China and the possession of Korea are the two essentials to the future of Japan. Close to her the one and rob her of the other, and she quickly falls back into the position of two generations ago.

But it is just with this fate that Russia is threatening her. In a moment of temporary “sanity” the Russian Government conceived the idea of developing her vast Asiatic possession, Siberia, by means of a railway that would go right across it to the Pacific Ocean, and thus not only link together the two halves of the Empire, but also form a through route from Europe to the Far East. By this means it was justly expected that the commerce of the world would acquire a new centre, and the whole eastern coast of Asia would be opened to the industrial West of Europe. In 1891 the present Czar, then heir to the throne, laid the foundation stone of the great work, and hundreds of miles of rails were at once laid at either end. Events, however, soon proved that Russia was reckoning without her host. The terminus of the railway was Vladivostok, but the exit from Vladivostok to the ocean lay through the Japanese Sea dominated on the one hand by Japan and on the other by Korea. More than that. Japan suddenly declared war on China, and after a short and brilliant struggle obtained possession of Korea. The whole of the calculations of the Russian Government were upset, and the plans at once were changed. By a series of bold moves, which will always remain classical in their way, she, in combination with Germany and France, drove Japan away from the mainland, got permission from China to carry the railway right through Manchuria down to Mukden and Niu-Chwang; and, in 1897, after Germany had seized Kiao Chau, she occupied Port Arthur and made it the southern terminus of her railway. Thus, perhaps unexpected to herself, Russia found herself in possession of the very same Liau-Tung peninsula from which in the name of the integrity of China she had driven out the Japanese, and became the mistress of the Gulf of Pe-chi-li, and consequently of Pekin.

Nevertheless the proximate object, a free outlet to the Pacific Ocean, has not yet been achieved. Japan and Korea still dominated the exit from Vladivostok, while the same Korea and the German and British possessions dominated the exit from Port Arthur. A glance at the map will show that the possession of Korea supplied the only solution of the problem with which Russia found herself confronted. Lying wedgelike between the two termini of the Great Siberian railway, Korea, in her southern portion, namely, by the promontory where Fusan lies, forms the only possible outlet to the Pacific ocean. Russia, therefore must obtain Korea if the 80,000,000 which she had sunk in the construction of the railway are to have any return. And this is equally true of Manchuria, through which the railway runs (or is destined to run) in its two branches to Port Arthur and Fusan.

Thus the very same points on which Japan has concentrated all her efforts are those which Russia, too, has set her heart upon, and a conflict such as we expect every day is the only possible outcome of the entanglement. We say the only possible outcome, though we know very well that it is not the only necessary one. We must not forget that the respective interests of the two contending parties are not at all of an equal importance to them. With Japan it is her entire future as an industrial and commercial, that is, modern nation that is involved in the question of who is to have access to China and Korea. With Russia it is nothing of the kind. Russia could very well develop her resources and use, with the most beneficent results, her Siberian railways, without possessing either Manchuria or Korea, and only living in peace with Japan. Her position in the Far East would then be something similar to that of Germany, whose exit to the Atlantic ocean is blocked by England. Russia, therefore, as the party whose interests are not at all vitally affected, could very well afford to climb down and let the dogs of war sleep. But that she will never do because what she lacks in commercial interests as a driving power is amply made up by the driving power of her autocracy, to whom nothing could be so fatal as the fact or even suspicion of having recoiled before a threatening war. That is why, under the circumstances, war seems to be the only possible solution of the crisis, as we said before.

And this leads to the consideration of what interest have we Socialists in the coming war. It certainly sounds very strange to speak of Socialists having any interest at all in a war. War is a terrible thing, and our comrades both in Japan and in Russia are doing a real work of civilisation by resisting it might and main. But the proletariat, we know, exercises little influence on the course of foreign politics, and whatever the ultimate results of the Socialist agitation in both countries may be, its proximate result, we may be pretty certain, will be nil. War will not be prevented and hecatombs will be sacrificed on the altar of the War Moloch. But if that be so, then the question of our interest in the war acquires a certain sense. Whom should we wish success to, with whom should be our sympathies? It has been asserted in some quarters that we have no interest in the matter at all; it is a struggle for supremacy between two capitalisms, and whichever wins, makes no difference to the proletariat. The reply to this must, from what has been explained above, be obvious. It is not a struggle between two capitalisms at all, but between a rising capitalist country on one hand, and an aggressive and rapacious autocracy on the other. The Russian capitalist class is but slightly interested in the Far Eastern “asset.” It has a far more valuable and immediate asset nearer home; and even the great Siberian railway can only have a commercial future when it is freed from the problems with which autocracy has been pleased to saddle it. On the other hand, China and Korea are essential to the growth of Japan as a capitalist country, and capitalism, whatever else we might say of it, is modern culture, and modern Socialism. To say, therefore, that we do not care who wins is hardly the right answer. We wish Japan to win because her victory is a defeat of the Russian autocracy, whilst at the same time it is a guarantee of her own progress. Of course, it may be said that the thing in the case of Japan has yet another side, namely, the danger lest in the case of a successful issue of the struggle, jingoism and militarism assume there such proportions that what little there is already of a working-class movement will be completely arrested, and Socialism will be set back for a generation to come. That is certainly a danger; nevertheless, it must not be exaggerated. On the one hand, we know that even a military disaster may lead to the same reaction, as witness the case of France; and on the other, we know by the example of Germany that no amount of militarism and chauvinism can for long set back the triumphant march of Socialism, which, like a shadow, is sure to follow the victorious chariot of capitalism. If Japan wins, her industrial future is magnificent; but so will also be the fortunes of Socialism in that country.

In the case of Russia, the interest of Socialism is about equal whether she loses or wins. This sounds paradoxical. Yet such is the opinion of every Russian Social-Democrat. The grounds for such an opinion are not far to seek. The Russian State system is rotten to the core. Corruption reigns supreme in every department of her public life and administration, be it civil or military, financial or fiscal, and a crisis such as a great war, which calls for the highest pressure of the State machinery, is bound to lead to its general breakdown. It is a case exactly parallel with that of the Second Empire, and has already been twice demonstrated during the last century, namely, after the Crimean and the Russo-Turkish wars. Each time, whether, as in the one case, badly beaten, or, as in the other, victorious, the direct result of the war was the breakdown of the State machinery, and a formal financial bankruptcy. This was because it has invariably turned out that her army, her means of communication, her commissariat, her State finances, all were so much paper and nothing else. This, of course, is only too natural; in fact, it has been the historical fate of all autocracies which have outlived their days, beginning with that of Xerxes, and ending with that of Napoleon III. Permanent and complete efficiency is only attainable under a Democracy, whilst absolutism, being by its very nature compelled to rely upon an irresponsible bureaucracy, can only breed corruption and fraud. If such has been the case in Russia a quarter and half a century ago, much more is it the case now when autocracy is rapidly losing the last hold it had over the minds and the devotion of the people. We may be pretty certain that if the Crimean War brought about the abolition of serfdom, the coming Russo-Japanese war will bring in its train the abolition of autocracy itself. The longer the war lasts, the better will be the chances of Russia to win; but the ultimate victory with which the war will then be crowned will have exhausted the financial and economic resources of the country and upset the Governmental machinery to such an extent that the Czar will find himself confronted with nothing but a universal wreck amidst which the entire revolutionary forces, and they are many – much more numerous than Europe suspects – will be set loose. The Czar will have nothing else to do but himself to convoke a constitutional assembly. On the other hand, if the war proves short, it will only be so because Japan has succeeded in the very first stages in giving Russia a few smart blows which at once have dislocated her military and financial organisations and made further action on the part of Russia impossible. In that case the effect will be still greater, and autocracy may very easily tumble down the steps of the throne immediately. The newly-consolidated Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party is now preparing the Russian nation for either eventuality, and to speak in the name of its central organ, Iskra, “Whatever the outcome of the difficulty which autocracy itself has created, it will lead to victory, to a victory of the people over autocracy. War or peace,” it continues – “ victory or defeat, Russia either way rapidly approaches the hour of her emancipation.” So may it be for the happiness of the Russian nation and of the entire world.


1. This article was already in type when the news came of the rupture of diplomatic intercourse between Russia and Japan. – Th. R.