The International Situation and the Red Army

III. The Curzon Ultimatum

From a Speech

At the Joint Meeting of Representatives of Party, Trade-Union, Young Communist and Other Organisations of the Krasnaya Presnya District, June 25, 1923

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

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Comrades! Our most recent history begins with Lord Curzon’s ultimatum, so allow me to start with this historic fact.

You will remember, comrades, what this ultimatum con-tained, and you will remember that the affair dragged on not for ten days but for 41 or 42 days, and you will further remember that on some very substantial points we gave way, but on some other, also substantial ones we did not give way. In order to strike a balance, let us recall what exactly we conceded to Lord Curzon. In the first place we withdrew Comrade Weinstein’s letters, which had been written not quite in full accordance with the textbook of good form. In the second place, on the question of the 3-mile and 12-mile limit for fishing, we paid due respect to Britain’s long-range naval guns and recognised her right to catch fish in the troubled waters outside the 3-mile limit. We are paying out 100,000 roubles, cash down. On the question of propaganda we undertake with a clear conscience to do against Britain nothing worse than she does against us, on the principle of complete equality between the parties; and I do not doubt, and nor will you, that our word is reliable – we do not answer for Tsarist treaties, but we carry out our own in earnest. [1]

On the question of recalling two representatives of ours, Comrade Raskolnikov from Afghanistan and Comrade Shumyatsky from Persia, we answered with a refusal. In his last note, or memorandum, Lord Curzon depicts the matter as though we are recalling Raskolnikov anyway, for reasons connected with internal service arrangements, something of that sort. [2] This is an obscure passage. Anyway, we have not given any commitments to this effect: since this is a matter of internal service arrangements, it concerns only the Soviet Government and no-one else. As regards Shumyatsky, Lord Curzon’s proposal was that we leave him in Persia after giving him a severe reprimand. We agreed to this on condition that a similar reprimand be given to Britain’s representative in that country – and I can assure you, comrades, that he does need some reprimanding. [3]

That is the formal balance. On some substantial points we gave way, without any joy on our part, but on others we refused, and the agreement was preserved. But if you try to strike not a formal, diplomatic balance but a political balance, and ask yourself: have we, as the outcome of this attempt to seize us by the throat with a ten-day ultimatum, become weaker or stronger, then I think, comrades, that, without bragging, we can say that we have become stronger. This is not because we showed any exceptional finesse or diplomatic wisdom, but simply because the ten-day ultimatum not only failed to produce a capitulation from our side but was transformed into more than forty days of negotiations, as a result of which concessions were made, and everything boiled down to a rotten compromise between mighty Britain and the Soviet Union. [4]

To evaluate the importance of the fact that, after exerting this pressure in the form of an ultimatum, Britain agreed to a compromise, we must ask ourselves: but why, precisely, was that ultimatum presented? To answer this question, conirades, we must survey in broad outline the situation of the other states of Europe, that is, of the European bourgeoisie. I am not going to tell you anything radically new on that subject, but merely to bring together concisely what, in general, every one of you knows from the daily news, from a number of reports, books and so on.

The European bourgeoisie are, in the present period, passing through, it may be, the zenith of the counter-revolutionary’ imperialist amplitude of their power. The imperialist war gave them a shove’ after the war there were waverings, they went in fear of the working class, but then the bourgeoisie recovered themselves and began to get their own back. More and more, it was conservative’ reactionary, militarist parties that came to power. The modes and forms of government assumed an increasingly naked military-and-police character.

Let us examine this proposition, in relation to the principal countries.

In Britain the Conservative Party came to power, that is, the most extreme Right wing of the British bourgeoisie, of the British landowners and of the colonial rulers. In France, the Bloc National, which had emerged from the war, wavered, and there was the Briand period, when the ruling plutocracy of all types and forms swung Leftward. Then, with the accession of Poincare, the Bloc National took a more and more Rightward orientation. This led to the Ruhr, to the armed seizure of the coalfields of Germany, and the Ruhr is still today the central problem of Europe’s economy and politics, and the world’s as well.

In Italy the idle and empty game of parliamentarism was replaced by the coming to power of counter-revolutionary troops of the bourgeoisie in the shape of Fascism, and open suppression of the workers’ organisations. In the last few days, Mussolini has passed not only through the parliamentary commissions but also through parliament itself a new electoral law which places four-fifths of the votes at the disposal of the Fascist Party for a certain number of years – provided, that is, that this law is not smashed from below by the anti-Fascist fist of the proletariat.

Germany has no policy of its own, but depends on the demands and importunities of the Entente.

As for the smaller countries – Poland has passed since its foundation through a petty-bourgeois, nationalist and militarist Kerenskiad, under Pilsudski. After wavering and internal struggles, there is now in power in Poland a bloc of Right-wing parties, that is, of Polish landlords and capitalists, in the form of the so-called ‘National Democrats’, the centre, and the party of Witos, that is, the kulaks’ party. From the social standpoint, this Right orientation is profoundly reactionary.

In Romania, after attempts at democratic and quasi-democratic governments, the Liberals have come to power, by way of a coup d’etat and de facto violation of the constitution. [5] These Liberals are one of the most counter-revolutionary parties in all Europe. They have had and have now nothing in common with liberalism even in the most indulgent interpretation of that term, but there is nothing remarkable about that, because in Romania all official politics is spurious through and through, including the very names of the political parties.

In Bulgaria a coup d’etat took place only recently, and rule by the so-called Agrarian Peasants’ Party, headed by Stambulisky, was replaced by the accession to power of a bloc of all the bourgeois parties which had been swept away after the war. Incidentally, in the latest issue of Milyukov’s Poslednie Novosti [6], which we received today, there is a very curious article about the coup d’etat in Bulgaria. Milyukov is, as you know, an old friend of Slavdom, and especially of Bulgaria. Nowadays he takes a Left orientation towards the peasantry, and considers that liberalism ought to give way to peasant democratism. Nevertheless, in this article he vehemently welcomes the coup d’etat in Bulgaria, as a victory for intelligent politics over the politics of peasant demagogy. This article would, by itself, completely suffice to expose the policy of the Cadets towards the peasant masses of Russia.

So, then, comrades, what does the picture add up to? The Conservatives, the extreme Right, in Britain: the extreme imperialists of the Bloc National, in France: the Fascists in Italy: the conservative Right in Poland: the counter-revolutionary Liberal party in Romania: and, one of the latest factors, the counter-revolutionary bourgeois coup in Bulgaria. We seem to be seeing the swing of counter-revolutionary reaction flying forward to reach its highest point. Bourgeois reaction has arrived at a critical moment. To appreciate this more clearly and concretely, we will say a few words about the domestic situation in Britain and France.

In Britain the Conservatives hold power. The Liberals have become the third party, numerically. The Labour Party now forms the direct opposition. At the elections it received more votes than the Liberals. The whole British of politics now stands under the sign of the inevitable coming to power of the Labour Party. You know that Labour Party which they have over there: it is British Menshevism, reformism. Essentially the leaders of the Labour Party are political agents of the bourgeoisie. But the point is, though, that there are periods when the bourgeoisie rules through agents like Curzon, who was Britain’s Viceroy of India, but there are also moments when it has to move to the Left and govern the masses through MacDonald, Henderson and so on.

The influence of the Labour Party is growing all the time. You read in yesterday’s papers that Robert Smilie, one of the Left leaders of the Labour Party, won the by-election at Mor-peth, on a programme of not merely maintaining the agreement with the Soviet Union but granting full diplomatic recognition. He obtained a very considerable majority of votes, over the bloc of Conservatives and Liberals.[7] This fact is indicative, comrades. Anyone who follows life in Britain will tell you that the bourgeois parties there are reckoning on the Labour Party coming to power in a year or two’s time as an unavoidable fact, and that the bourgeoisie are having to accommodate themselves to the fact that their interests will be looked after not by their old, acknowledged leaders, but through the mediation of the Mensheviks of the Labour Party.

The political life of France, too, is on the brink of a change. The parliamentary general elections are due in ten or eleven month’s time, and, to judge from by-election results, the feeling in the country, and, what is most important, from the objective situation in France, we may expect that the Bloc National will be replaced by the so-called Left Radical bloc, made up of Radical-Socialists and Socialist-patriotic reformists, a bloc of petty-bourgeois democrats. Primarily, this follows from the financial situation of the French state. Industry remains sound in France, and agriculture, although shocks have been suffered at the lowest level of the peasantry, has, in general, preserved its strength. Yet France itself faces bankruptcy. The country is in debt to the tune of 300 milliard francs: it owes large sums to Britain and to America, and is not paying them. Finally, although it possesses the asset of Germany’s obligation to reconstruct the northern departements at her own expense, Germany cannot pay, and is not meeting its obligation. This situation will not be helped by any military occupations, which merely ruin Germany and bring nothing, or very little, to France. Of course, Poincaré and Foch appreciate quite well that the occupation of the Ruhr will not mean that France will receive large sums in reparation payments, but will only cause further ruin and weakening of Germany, which will serve a military-political purpose – to ensure that Germany cannot get up on its hind legs again and take revenge on the French imperialism that knocked it down. But this will not improve the state of France’s budget, pay the country’s debts, or reconstruct the northern departments. France is now faced with the need to get clear of that miserable, lying fable about how the Germans are going to pay for all the broken crockery.

Consequently, the whole question boils down to the question of the system of taxation. Enormous sums will have to be wrung out of France’s state economy, every year for decades, in order to pay for the cost and damage of the war. That is what the immediate domestic problem in France amounts to. We are not interested in the elections, we know what the mechanism of democracy is worth, but, in the given case, a new orientation of classes and parties will emerge through the medium of elections. They will seek the answer to the question of how to get France’s neck out of the financial noose, how to escape bankruptcy. Can it be doubted, I repeat, that each of the upper strata of the bourgeoisie will endeavour to shift the tax burden on to the backs of the lower strata, classes and sub-classes? But that will provoke a sharp rebuff from the peasant masses and the working class. And the bourgeoisie realises that it cannot increase indirect taxation, reduce wages, lengthen the working day, and cut into the pitiful savings of the petty-bourgeoisie while maintaining the panoply of Foch’s militarism. In this matter they will have to operate more artfully, they will have need of the pacifist reformists, the compromisers, the Radicals, the Socialists, and we are seeing how the French bourgeoisie, sensing that it is on the verge of financial bankruptcy, is now adopting a Leftward orientation, and the Left bloc is preparing to take over from the Bloc National. The Left bloc will signify, using our Soviet, Russian terms, a French Kerenskiad, that is, a period of flirtation with the people, of powerlessness, insta-bility and neurasthenic outbursts.

The British and French bourgeoisies have managed up to now to rule through their extreme Right wings, but they feel it necessary to re-form and reconstruct themselves. In France a shift to the position of the Left bloc, in Britain a shift to that of the Labour Party will almost inevitably mean recognition of the Soviet Union and, consequently the liquidation of our revolution will recede into the misty distance. But, if this is so, will not the Fascists and Fochists (after our friend, General Foch) – two parties which have identical feelings towards us – will they not think that it is imperative in the period still remaining, while imperialism has not yet spent all its energies, when the fascists have just triumphed in Italy and a coup has been carried out in Bulgaria, to have a go at overthrowing Soviet Russia?

There, comrades, you have the basic reason for Lord Curzon’s attempt to force us to our knees and, if possible, to lay us on our backs, by means of his ultimatum. We know, of course, that today Lord Curzon is not in a position to send, either to Archangel, or to the Murman coast, or to Odessa, even one single expeditionary corps or one single British regiment. Such an act would arouse the deepest indignation of the proletarian masses in Britain, and the Labour Party, on coming to power, would be obliged to avail themselves of this indignation. Lord Curzon was banking on his ultimatum inciting somebody else against us. He placed his hopes on our close neighbours. Let us name them: Romania and Poland.

It is an undoubted fact that both in Poland and in Romania recently the influence of France has considerably weakened, as compared with that of Britain, but, on the other hand, Romania is hardly able or inclined at present to engage in any military adventures. In power there, as I mentioned, are the Liberals, while all the other parties are in opposition – this opposition taking the form of obstruction, demonstrations and street fighting. We must not forget that there are two problems in Romania which are fateful for the country’s affairs of state – the agrarian problem and the national problem. So that it is hardly to be expected that there will be any active hostilities against us so far as Romania is concerned.

In Poland the Pilsudskiad has been succeeded by direct and open rule by the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. The Polish mark is dancing the devil’s dance. It is said that in the last few days the stock-exchange has been shut, owing to the incredible fall in the value of the Polish mark. The textile industry, which plays an immense role in Poland, is in a state of paralysis, which pines for the Russian market, but there is no trade agrement with the Russian Union [sic]. This counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie of trade and industry which is now in power is no closer to us socially, of course, than the petty-bourgeois intel-ligentsia groups and cliques on which Pilsudski relies, but where business is concerned it is a more serious partner.

Do we want to enter into trade relations with Poland? Of course we do. Poland is wedged between us and Germany. Poland is obliged, where both Germany and ourselves are con-cerned, either to fight us or to trade with us. By virtue of its geographical situation Poland will make profits from commission and transit charges, because goods will be conveyed across Polish territory. We have no objection to paying commission to the Polish bourgeoisie, for this is cheaper than fighting. I repeat, the moment when the Polish commercial and industrial bourgeoisie came to power was not convenient for the plans of Lord Curzon. At that moment a Pilsudski might have created some military-neurasthenic or military-hysterical incident, but these people are more serious. It can be said that all the states of Europe are frenziedly feverish, but the paroxysm of this fever does not coincide in time between one bourgeois class and another. When, let’s say, Lord Curzon’s temperature stands at 41 degrees, that of the Polish bourgeoisie stands at 36.

This, comrades, is what explains the Curzon ultimatum and the failure of that ultimatum. And if we leave aside diplomacy – the fact that we withdrew the letters, and our payment of those 100,000 silver roubles, which is, after all, a sum that even our modest budget can manage somehow – if we leave that aside and consider the political result, we get this picture: the most powerful imperialist state in Europe had put up with us for some time, but eventually presented us with an ultimatum, obviously hoping thereby to bring matters to a decisive conclusion. During the period of the ultimatum the government in Britain itself changed, and even in the government itself there was conflict over the ultimatum. The affair dragged on, and ended with us paying 100,000 roubles for two British agents, and we yielded in respect of what is called in the language of diplomacy ‘prestige’ – but, since our concept of prestige does not quite coincide with Lord Curzon’s, we set a different price on this imponderable product. We have become stronger, we have become more powerful, and this is emphasised most sharply by the fact that we have entered into negotiations (for the time being of a preliminary nature) with Japan, that mighty imperialist power in the Far East which, though linked with the Entente and with Britain, agreed to negotiations in the very period of the Curzon ultimatum.

How negotiations with Japan will end I will not at this moment undertake to predict: this is no simple matter, in view of the internal situation in Japan itself. The situation there is reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary epoch here. Japan is a bourgeois country, but its superstructure is still to an extraordinary extent feudal, caste-ridden and militarist. Japan passed through its reform period almost at the same time as our epoch of great reforms in the middle of the 19th century – our semi-abolition of serfdom, introduction of the zemstvo, a certain amount of press freedom, and so on. [The reforms of Tsar Alexander II and the ‘restoration of Emperor Meiji’ both took place in the 1860s.] Japan, too, had its epoch of great reforms, and this culminated in a constitution, but the constitution was drawn up on a basis of social estates and castes. Capitalism developed comparatively slowly, and served primarily to increase the armed might of the state. Great progress was achieved in that sphere, as, indeed, Tsardom was made to feel on its person. But during the imperialist war Japan’s capitalism developed at a frenziedly feverish pace, and Japanese industry and the Japanese proletariat developed quantitatively to a high level. At the same time, Japanese bourgeois democracy is now fighting for state power against the cliques of the military caste. Telegrams bring news every day of particular episodes in this struggle. The Japanese bourgeoisie have organised themselves into a Cadet or Octobrist party which is called ‘the party of business friends’ – I won’t try to say this in Japanese. [8] This party is headed by the local textile king. The central point in their programme is the restoration and development of trade relations with other states. The Japanese textile industry seeks an outlet in the markets of our Far East and Siberia, and also needs our Siberian raw material. On the other hand, however, the Japanese general staff has not yet played its last card. Some comrades, it seems to me, assess the situation very optimistically, taking it that victory has been secured for the policy of agreement with and recognition of Soviet Russia. There is, undoubtedly, a very great movement among the masses, not only among the workers but also among the bourgeoisie, in favour of recognising the Soviet Union and establishing normal relations with us, but it is hard to forecast how things will work out. I consider it more likely, on the basis of all the precedents we possess, that relations will become more strained and there will be a temporary strengthening of the capitalist [sic] cliques. [‘Capitalist’ is presumably a mistake for ‘militarist’.] I think that Japan’s negotiations with us will develop far less rapidly and painlessly than some people hope. In any case, we shall put no obstacles in the way of their success: that is certain.

Such, then, comrades, in broad outline, is our international situation. We have become stronger after the trials connected with the Curzon ultimatum, but it is impossible to predict the convulsions of the capitalist organism, and no astrologer will forecast what tomorrow holds for us. It is good, of course, that the ultimatum miscarried, that neither Poland nor Romania yielded to provocation. But all the elements of provocation, Fascism and Fochism, all these factors hostile to us are in operation, and what combination they will assumed tomorrow we do not know. That is why we have listened very closely to the instructions given by Foch to the Polish generals during his visit to Warsaw. [Foch arrived in Poland on May 2, 1923 and spent over a week there, attending military parades and visiting army units.] He said, we are informed, that in the next war the principal weapon will be aircraft, and victory will be ensured by chemical warfare.

Foch is absolutely right. We must concern ourselves with chemical warfare, not to mention aircraft. We are now in Aviation Week, and I think that it will be a very good thing, as I have already said at another meeting, if, after this week, we make it a regular practice to answer every attack by the Fascists or the Fochists by building aeroplanes. They present us with an ultimatum – we build an aeroplane which we name ‘Ultimatum’, and so on. And since they offend us frequently and a great deal, we shall eventually read a whole stretch of history in our Soviet skies. And the more resolutely we carry out this work, the more we shall succeed in reducing the number of offences committed against us.

From the archives


1. The Soviet Government bound itself ‘not to support with funds or in any other form persons or bodies or agencies or institutions whose aim is to spread discontent or to foment rebellion in any part of the British Empire’.

2. Curzon wrote: ‘His Majesty’s Government now understand that, in accordance with the normal arrangements governing the movements of members of the Russian diplomatic service, the transfer to another post of M. Raskolnikov, against whom the main charges have been made, has already been decided on.’

3. The British representative in Persia was Sir Percy Loraine.

4. The Annual Register for 1923 wrote (p.58): ‘In appearance, the result was a distinct success for Lord Curzon’s diplomacy, as Russia had given way on all the main points. But if the object of his first note had been, as was widely believed, and as its tone seemed to indicate, to provoke a rupture, it was rather the critics of the Government who had reason to congratulate themselves.’ The Third Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, meeting in June 1923’ resolved that ‘the enlarged executive congratulates the Soviet Government on not allowing itself to be provoked by British imperialism but, instead, by a clear and decisive policy which involved certain sacrifices, on having avoided the rupture which Britain’s ruling classes wished to precipitate.’

F. Conte, who used the Trotsky archives and Louis Fischer’s notes of his conversations with Rakovsky, says that it was Trotsky himself who composed the Soviet reply to the Curzon ultimatum (Un Révolutionnaire-diplomate: Christian Rakovski, 1978, pp.97, 99).

5. King Ferdinand of Romania was in poor health, and the Liberal leader Bratianu feared that Crown Prince Carol might get rid of him, if he became King, so he forced Carol to renounce his claim to the throne, and set up a ‘Provisional Regency Council’ packed with his own nominees.

6. Poslednie Novosti (The Latest News) was the newspaper which Milyukov edited in Paris.

7. Smillie had a majority of nearly 7,000 over the Liberal who stood against him. The Conservatives had not run a candidate, so as to ‘keep the Socialist out’. The previous MP [?], a Labour ‘moderate’, had been elected with fewer votes than those cast for the Liberal and the Conservative who opposed him.

8. Jitsugyo Doshikai (the Business Co-thinkers’ Association, founded by Muto Sanji as a party for liberal elements, remained a negligible force in Japanese politics and was short-lived.

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Last updated on: 30.12.2006