The International Situation and the Red Army

III. The Curzon Ultimatum

From a Report

To the Moscow Provincial Conference of Metal Workers, June 5, 1923

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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Comrades, we are again entering an uneasy period. The British ultimatum is only one of the outward expressions of this uneasy period. We experienced the years of intense civil war and intervention, and they were followed by the period of the so-called breathing space, which was most prominently marked by the Russo-British trade agreement and the invitation of our diplomats to Genoa and The Hague. From the Russo-British trade agreement until Genoa there was a sort of constant increase in the extent to which we were recognised, it was as though they had decided to reconcile themselves to us. I speak, of course, of the bourgeoisie, because the working class had reconciled themselves to us from the first days of the Soviet Republic’s appearance on earth.

After The Hague a new, uneasier period began. The bourgeoisie of even those states which had concluded, or were going to conclude, agreements with us, now beat a retreat, either completely or partially. They alleged, first, that economic relations with us constitute a game that is not worth the candle, because we import too little and are able to export too little. That was their principal argument. The second argument, an old one, temporarily forgotten and now renewed, was that we are short-lived, that the Soviet Republic is now, finally, at its last breath. They talked a lot about this ‘last breath’, especially in the first three years, then they apparently granted us a respite; but now Russia is, for the last time, at her last breath. The bourgeois and White-Guard press are reiterating this opinion in all the languages of bourgeois civilisation.

It is necessary, however, to note that this mood of thefts has, as always, its economic basis. In 1919-1920 Europe was, like the whole world, passing through a very great economic crisis, such as the capitalist world had never seen. Under the pressure of the millions of unemployed (in America there were five million and in Britain between two and three million), the bourgeoisie, as usually happens, in order to stay in power, strove to find a way out, even through dealings with Soviet Russia. This was the explanation of the period which saw the making of the Russo-British agreement and, later, our participation in the conferences at Genoa and the Hague. [1]

At Genoa and the Hague they put a serious question to us, asking to what extent we had become civilised and educated under the influence of our economic dealings with Britain and other countries, When, to a whole number of questions and, especially, to the basic question whether we would agree to replace state ownership by private ownership on the part of the former proprietors, we returned a categorically negative reply, the bourgeoisie resolved to undermine the prestige of our diplomats.

At the Hague, a few weeks after Genoa, the respect shown to our diplomats was already much less. After the Hague, which, as you remember, came to nothing, our international situation (I am speaking always about the official situation, that is, about our relations with bourgeois governments) began increasingly to deteriorate. Lord Curzon was by this time already counting on a new period of economic upturn in Britain and throughout the world. By the laws of natural development, an economic crisis is usually succeeded by an economic upturn. At present this upturn has, in Europe, by no means reached pre-war levels, but the number of unemployed in Britain has nevertheless dropped sharply. In France it had not been large to start with, and in America, after a tremendous crisis, we can observe a general boom. During the past year very many major American trusts have, on their own initiative, raised their workers’ wages so as to paralyse any strike movement in advance.

On the other hand, it has turned out that our economic advance is proceeding slowly, and that, as buyers and sellers on the world market, we constitute a comparatively modest magnitude. It would be possible to enhance our purchasing power by granting us large credits and investing in our Soviet land large amounts of foreign capital, as loans, for a number of years. But the situation in Europe and throughout the world is so unstable, and the bourgeoisie is now so lacking in faith in its own future, that it cannot bring itself to engage in an operation calculated over a period of years, as it used to in the old days, before the imperialist war. Nowadays the world bourgeoisie lives from moment to moment: today they grab, they speculate, they rob Germany, they lay their hands on the Ruhr, they carry off’ sell, take their profits’ and so on’ day after day.

These, comrades, are the fundamental reasons which have obliged the bourgeoisie to say to itself: today, Soviet Russia, the Union of Soviet Republics, is still too small a quantity, as buyer and as seller: for us to invest capital in order to help them revive their economy would be unprofitable, because we could pluck the fruits only after five or eight years – and who knows what the situation will be then.

Besides which, the Soviet Republic showed at Genoa and the Hague that she is not disposed to renounce her fundamental ‘errors’. True, she has introduced the New Economic Policy, NEP is developing and the market expanding, but the railways, the bowels of the earth, the principal means of production and the basic industrial enterprises are in the hands of the state. And the Soviet Republic has not agreed either to return the factories to their owners or to compensate the latter for loss and damage. If one were to enable the Soviet Republic to develop further – and it is developing, even though slowly – then, in a few year’s time, while retaining its Communist principles, it might become a powerful factor, a more dangerous factor in world development than it is today. Therefore, the thing to do is to try and give it a shove, to test its stability.

Coinciding with this was the frenzied attack by our White Guard press connected with the illness of Vladimir Ilyich. Out there, abroad, live between one-and-a-half and two million (let’s not forget that) former Russian landlords, capitalists, bankers, generals, officials, professors, lawyers and doctors, who have looked forward to the fall of Soviet power from one day to the next, who have been disappointed, but who then have begun to hope for a miracle. And when the first telegram was received about the illness of Vladimir Ilyieh, that gave wings to their hopes. They have learnt to appreciate what Comrade Lenin means for our country and for the world revolution. They have learnt to appreciate that so highly that they understand that his withdrawal from work, for a long time, even though only for a time, means a terrible disadvantage for the prospects of the entire revolution. But, in addition, they firmly count on Comrade Lenin’s illness at once causing breakdown, disintegration, internal conflict in the Communist Party and in the Soviet apparatus which it leads. This was their principal and fundamental hope. And when they read our central newspaper, Pravda, in which there were polemical articles before the congress, in which Osinsky [2] wrote and Kamenev, Martynov, Krassin and others retorted, this polemic in the pages of our central organ seemed to them to be the harbinger of a great catastrophe, the collapse of all the pillars of the Soviet Republic, and so the doomsday of the Soviets. At Helsingfors they organised a special factory for fabricating this sort of rumour: you could read in the bourgeois, White émigré papers telegrams about speeches by Preobrazhensky which he never made, about speeches by Bukharin which have been a great surprise to him, about my retorts to reproaches which I had never heard or refuted. This stuff was taken up by the entire press of Europe and America, translated into all languages – and so it went on for weeks and entire months. And it must be said that by this means they have succeeded in making an impression on the European bourgeoisie, to the effect that we are on the brink of collapse, that the Party is demoralised and the Soviet apparatus on the point of breaking into fragments. And in these circumstances Curzon said: ‘We must try and give them a shove – maybe something will come of it.’ These are the economic, political and psychological pre-conditions of the Curzon ultimatum.

At the same time, inside the countries of Europe, we see an undoubted revival of the mass revolutionary movement, after the lull of 1921 and of part of 1922. We can project a curve in this connection. In 1919, after the war, the workers throughout Europe were, as you know, in a profoundly revolutionary mood, and if they had been headed by parties even distantly resembling our Party, the proletariat of Europe would have taken power in 1919. But the Social-Democratic party which they had raised up in the past betrayed them. And they found themselves leaderless at the very moment of the first revolutionary offensive after the war. There were a whole series of unsuccessful movements, the defeat of the workers in Germany and, especially, in Italy, the blow suffered by the workers in France in May 1920 [3], and, as a result, a decline in morale. The working class has noted that, even after the imperialist war, the bourgeoisie has remained in power, that its police and military apparatus has been strengthened, and that power is not to be wrested from it with bare hands.

The Communist Party is gradually beginning to take shape. This is a slow process, and the broad masses of the workers are waiting to see. They are waiting to see because the old party deceived them, and they are not going to show naive trust in the new, Communist Party – they are waiting to see. And in 1920, 1921 and the beginning of 1922 there was a major hold-up in the revolutionary movement and a slow growth of the Communist Party. In that period the International, led by our Russian Party, put forward the slogan of the united front – that is, the Communist minority proposes to the mass of the workers a united front in all movements, everywhere, in which the elementary interests of the worker masses are being defended. At first these united front slogans rebounded from the old trade unions, the Social-Democrats, the passive worker masses, like peas from a wall, but the economic upsurge which has taken place during the past year in Europe and throughout the world has shaken the worker masses out of their passivity, and we are now seeing a flood-tide of strike movements in every country in Europe.

For a strike the workers need to close their ranks. That is why the united front proposals made by the Communists, who are in the minority, are now meeting with a very much more sym-pathetic response, and you have probably read how, in the international transport workers’ union we have succeeded in realising a united front – that is, our Red transport workers’ international association and the transport union of the Amsterdammers (the yellows, as we call them, and rightly call them) have been able to setup a contact organisation for joint struggle against the war danger and for the common interests of the transport workers. This is one of our greatest victories. At present these victories find no concrete expression, but they signify that we have, with the battering-ram of Communism, broken down the wall of apathy and forced the yellow leaders of the old traitor trade unions to meet the unions of the Red Profintern half-way. What is on the agenda now is a similar unification on the world scale among the metal workers, and here, seemingly, if all the signs are not deceptive, we shall compel the Amsterdammers to organise an international union, and meet our union half-way in order to unite the revolutionary trade unions on the world scale.

What does this mean? It means that the class struggle is being intensified after a certain period of decline. This is not yet the first step, comrades, not the first chapter in the proletarian revolution in the West, for the Communists are still in the minority, but it is already an approach to the first chapter, a transition from decline to movement, to advance, and, therefore to more favourable soil for Communist influence throughout Europe.

At the same time, international relations are not only not reverting to the framework of normal connections between bourgeois states, they are continuing to be extremely strained, threatening a bloody explosion from one day to the next. We have seen this from what happened in the Ruhr. Since the imperialist war, people are used to anything, but if you think about what confronts us in the form of the occupation of the Ruhr, it must be said that this is a war, which has not assumed the direct character of immediate mass baffles merely because one of the belligerents keeps the other in a state of disarmament. Essentially, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers have burst into Germany, and seized the railway junctions and mines, and they are shooting armed or semi-armed people, and so on. This is a new form of continuation of the same imperialist war.

The Ruhr affair has thrust a wedge between Britain and France, on the one hand, and between Italy and Britain, on the other. All this creates conditions of maximum instability, which have a twofold meaning for us: in the first place, they signify the downfall of our enemy, and, consequently, that the revolution may go forward more quickly than we recently thought it would: and, on the other hand, this same collapse and instability in Europe creates the possibility of surprises in the form of the ultimatum from Lord Curzon and of other, perhaps much more serious factors in the sphere of international relations.

Poland has in recent times shown an increasing disposition to pass from under France’s guidance to that of Britain. In the last few days there was a change of government there. The so-called Left grouping, the more adventuristic one, whose spokesman was Pilsudski, that well-known ‘friend of the Ukraine’, was brought down, and in power now is a kulak-peasant government of Witos along with the National Democrats, who are the local party of trade and industry, something like our late Octobrists or Cadets. This change of government in Poland corresponds to our interests. No-one, of course, will suppose that the Polish Octobrists are nearer or dearer to us in the class or socialist sense than are the Polish Kerenskys – and Pilsudski is a Polish Kerensky, only made up to look like Napoleon – but they are based upon a solid foundation of commercial and industrial capital. Under Tsardom Polish industry, especially the textile industry, was wholly dependent on the Russian market, and Poland’s big capitalists are highly interested in re-establishing peaceful and neighbourly relations with us. And it is to be expected that relations with us will now be more peaceful, that is, in the sense that Witos will not send bandit gangs against us, in the form of Savinkovites, Petlyurists and others, because the Polish industrialists will not let him, but will rather seek to send us textile goods. Thus, relations with Poland seem to be improving.

In the Far East, too, Japan seems to be changing her line, escaping from the influence of Britain, which had determined her behaviour, and preparing not only to conclude an economic treaty with us, but even, apparently to restore full diplomatic relations. All this is at present only at the initial stage, Comrade Joffe is negotiating, and there are what look like favourable symptoms. [4] But it is hard to make predictions in all these affairs, in view of the complete instability of all world relations.

Before the imperialist world war we had the Triple Entente, on one side, and the Triple Alliance, on the other. Far years and decades the diplomats and chiefs of staff made their calculations for a future war, they knew against whom they would be fighting, where the battlefields would be, and they deceived public opinion through decades. Today the profession of diplomat or bourgeois general has become much more complicated, because they do not know against whom to mobilise public opinion, with what country, in what theatre of war, they will have to fight, or where they can seek help, for utter instability reigns in all relations, both social and inter-state.

You will probably ask how our polite correspondence with Lord Curzon will end. I must admit, comrades, with a clear conscience, that I do not know, and I am very much afraid that, at this moment, Lord Curzon does not know, either. He began, as I have already mentioned, at a time when it seemed that one shove would suffice to bring us down. Seven weeks passed and nothing came down. He gave us a ten-day time-limit, then he added a few days, until Wednesday, and finally, on Wednesday, on the 13th or 14th day, he wrote a new note, and in this note he asked us to reply as soon as possible and once forall, but this time he did not set a time-limit .[5] It is to be hoped that our diplomats will not abuse the patience of this so very courteous Lord Curzon, but will reply at the earliest opportunity. But how will Lord Curzon answer? He was a minister in the government of Bonar Law, and the attempts to topple the Soviet Government began under Bonar Law, but Bonar Law toppled first: between the two notes a change of government took place. [6] It is said that the new one has a more conciliatory attitude towards us – I cannot take any responsibility for this report, but that is what they say. So that the situation is that we are now, as it were, sitting in a sort of lottery, and the number we shall draw is not known: this best typifies the international situation and the diplomacy and policy of the borgeoisie, when no consistent line can be followed, and it is impossible to forecast what will happen tomorrow’ because it will not follow logically from today. In any case, if we assume the worst, a break in relations, this would, of course be a serious blow to us, yet a blow that we could survive.

We are becoming to an increasing extent an exporting country, which exports, primarily, grain and timber, but also other kinds of raw material: flax, hemp, hides. Britain needs our timber urgently. As regards our grain, Britain needs that somewhat less, although, here, too, it must be said that all Europe is ready to buy as much grain as we can export. We can now quote the figure of more than 50 million poods of grain of all varieties. To be sure, this is a small figure when compared with what we exported before the war: then we exported 600 or 700 million poods, sometimes as much as 900 million,but, on the average, between 500 and 600 million. Next year, however, if prospects for the harvest are not deceptive, this figure will increase to 200 million poods and over. True, America also exports grain, but that has to be paid for with gold, because America needs nothing from Europe except gold. America has no need of European machinery, and Europe has no raw materials of its own. But Europe, as it is, owes America 20 milliards in gold, and cannot pay, so that Europe is almost unable to buy anything at all from America. But what about us? We, of course, are not averse to receiving gold in exchange for our grain, but we will take machinery, too, and other industrial products. Europe cannot export to America but she can export to us. That is why, if things drag out, that is, if the revolution does not happen in the near future, and the bourgeoisie stays in power for three, four or five years more, then the British bourgeoisie may grimace, but in the end they will have to eat Soviet grain and use Soviet timber. About the other countries there is no point in saying anything. Italy cannot live without our wheat. You know that the Italians’ national dish is macaroni. They make it from hard wheat, and our hard wheat from the South, from the Kuban, is hard, just as the Italians like it; and whatever Mussolini may say, however he may philosophise on the theme of Fascism, he will be obliged, all the same, to eat our hard wheat. This is our major trump-card, we can boldly say, and this is why even a breach of diplomatic relations with Britain, which would, of course, be to our detriment, would merely slow down our economic progress but would not halt it completely, and could not capsize us.

From the archives


1. The year 1919 and most of 1920 actually saw a post-war boom in Britain. This came to an end in late 1920, and unemployment rose sharply, reaching its highest point – just over two million – in June 1922, after which it declined to 1,137,000 at the end of 1923.

2. There is no reference figure in the text, but this is evidently the passage to which Note 7 refers. N. Osinsky (V.V. Obolensky) was in 1921-1923 People’s Commissar for Agriculture. In October 1923 he was one of the signatories of the oppositionist Platform of the 46.

3. On May 1, 1920 the French railwaymen went on strike, and were supported by the dockers and other groups. However, the strike petered out and ended unsuccessfully before the end of May.

4. Joffe was invited to Japan, ‘for his health’, by Japan’s former Foreign Minister, Viscount Goto, president of the Japan-Russia Society, and while there he initiated, in the spring of 1923, talks on the resumption of normal relations between Japan and Russia. These talks were resumed in the following year, and led to Japanese recognition of the USSR in January 1925. Russia tendered ‘an expression of sincere regret’ for the massacre of 700 Japanese at Nikolayevsk in March 1920, and Japan agreed to evacuate North Sakhalin.

5. The reference is to Curzon’s memorandum of May 29, handed to Comrade Krasin, who was in London for talks with the British Government. In it, Curzon repeated the demands of his initial ultimatum, but now without laying down any time-limit.

6. Bonar Law resigned on May 20, 1923, and was succeeded as head of the Cabinet by Baldwin.

Bonar Law’s resignation was due to ill-health. The new Premier’ Baldwin, had been his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Curzon remained as Foreign Secretary, and the only new member brought into the Cabinet was Lord Robert Cecil. Baldwin had a ‘business’ background’ and in July 1923 a delegation of British businessmen, headed by the Premier’s cousin, visited the USSR.

7. Before the Twelfth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (17-25 April 1923), a discussion took place on the relations between the Party and the economic organs.

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Last updated on: 30.12.2006