Leon Trotsky

Perspectives and Tasks
in the East

(Speech on the third anniversary of the
Communist University for Toilers of the East)

(April 1924)

Written: April 21, 1924.
First Published: New Park Publications Ltd, June 1973, via Index Books, UK.
Online Version: Trotsky Internet Archive, April, 2001.
Translated: R. Chappell.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Chris Valade.

I HAVE RECEIVED, COMRADES, from the bureau of your cell, documents outlining your university’s work over three years. At my request the comrades marked out all the most essential points with a red pencil thereby considerably easing my task of becoming familiar with the documents for, and I do not know how to put it – either to my shame or to my loss – I have not had the opportunity of closely following the work of your university either day by day or even month by month: work which has an exceptional and, without at all exaggerating as is common on anniversaries, a world-historical significance.

Comrades, although it is perhaps not customary at anniversary meetings to get involved in theory, nevertheless allow me to present a few observations of a general character which will substantiate my statement that your university is no simple educational establishment, revolutionary as it may be, but forms a lever of world-historical significance…. The whole present-day political and cultural movement rests upon capitalism, out of which it is growing, has grown and which it has outgrown. But capitalism has, schematically speaking, two different facets: the capitalism of the metropolis and the capitalism of the colonies. The classic model of a metropolis is Britain. At the present time it is crowned by the so-called ‘Labour’ government of MacDonald. As for the colonies I would hesitate to say which one of them is most typical as a colony: this would either be India, a colony in the formal sense, or China which preserves the semblance of independence yet in her world position and the course of her development belongs to the colonial type. Classic capitalism is in Britain. Marx wrote his Capital in London by directly observing the development of the most advanced country – you will know this, though I do not remember which year you cover this in ... In the colonies capitalism develops not out of its own fragments but as an intrusion of foreign capital. This is what creates the two different types. Why is MacDonald, to put it not very scientifically but in quite precise terms just the same, why is MacDonald so conservative, so limited and so stupid?

Because Britain is the classic land of capitalism, because capitalism there organically developed from handicrafts through manufacture into modern industry step by step, by an ‘evolutionary’ road and so yesterday’s prejudices and those of the day before and the prejudices of the past and the previous centuries, all the ideological garbage of the ages you can discover under MacDonald’s skull. [applause] At first glance there is here some historical contradiction: why did Marx appear in backward Germany, in the most backward of the great countries of Europe in the first half of the 19th century, not counting Russia of course? Why did Marx appear in Germany and why did Lenin appear in Russia on the borders of the 19th and 20th centuries? A plain contradiction! But of what nature? Of one which can be explained by the so-called dialectic of historical development. In the shape of British machinery and in the shape of British cotton cloth, history created the most revolutionary factor of development. But this machinery and this cloth were processed and created by way of a prolonged and slow historical transition, one step at a time, while human consciousness remained in general frightfully conservative.

When economic development proceeds slowly and systematically it tends to find it hard to break through human skulls. Subjectivists and idealists in general say that human consciousness, critical thought and so on and so forth draw history forward like a tug towing a barge behind it. This is untrue. You and I are Marxists and we know that the motive power of history consists of the productive forces which have up till now taken shape behind man’s back and with which it tends to be very difficult to smash through man’s conservative skull in order to produce the spark of a new political idea there and especially, let me repeat, if the development takes place slowly, organically and imperceptibly. But when the productive forces of a metropolis, of a classic land of capitalism, like Britain, encroach upon a more backward country, as with Germany in the first half of the 19th century, and with ourselves on the watershed of the 19th and the 20th centuries, and at the present time with Asia; when economic factors intrude in a revolutionary way cracking the old regime, when development takes place not gradually, not ‘organically’ but by means of terrible shocks, and abrupt shifts in the old social layers, then critical thought finds its revolutionary expression incomparably more easily and rapidly, providing there is of course the necessary theoretical prerequisites for this. That is why Marx appeared in Germany in the first half of the 19th century and that is why Lenin appeared here and that is why we can observe at first sight the paradoxical fact that in the land of the highest, oldest and most revered European capitalism, Britain, we have the most conservative ‘Labour’ party. While on the other hand in our Soviet Union, an extremely backward country economically and culturally speaking, we have – and I say this unashamedly for it is a fact – the best communist party in the world. [applause]

It must be said that as regards its economic development Russia stands mid-way between the classic metropolis like Britain and the colonial countries like India or China. And what distinguishes our Soviet Union from Britain as regards the paths and forms of development shows itself even more sharply in the development of the countries of the East. Capitalism encroaches there in the form of foreign finance capital. There it tosses in ready-made machines shaking and undermining the old economic base and erects upon its splinters the Tower of Babel of a capitalist economy. The action of capitalism in the countries of the East is neither gradual nor slow nor ‘evolutionary’ but abrupt, catastrophic – indeed in many cases far more catastrophic than it was here in yesterday’s Tsarist Russia.

It is from this fundamental standpoint, comrades, that one has to examine the fate of the East in the coming years and in the coming decades. If you take such prosaic books as the accounts of British and American banks for the years 1921, 1922, 1923 then you will read tomorrow’s revolutionary fate of the East in the figures of the bank balances of London and New York. Britain has once again re-established her role as world usurer. The United States have accumulated an unbelievable quantity of gold: in the vaults of the Central Bank there is kept gold to the value of 3,000m dollars, that is 6,000m gold roubles. This inundates the economy of the United States. If you ask: to whom do Britain and the United States give loans? – for as you have probably heard they are still not giving loans to us, the Soviet Union, nor do they give them to Germany, they gave France some miserable crumbs to save the franc – so who do they give them to? For the most part they give them to the colonial countries; they go to finance the industrial development of Asia, South America and South Africa. I shall not give you figures: I do have some but this would drag out my report too much, but it is sufficient to say that up to the last imperialist war the colonial and semi-colonial countries received from the United States and Britain probably about half as much in credits as did the developed capitalist countries, yet now financial investments in the colonial countries exceed, and exceed very considerably, investments in the old capitalist countries. Why is this? The causes are many but the chief ones are two: a lack of confidence in old Europe, ruined and bled white, with this furious French militarism at its heart – a militarism which threatens ever fresh upheavals; and on the other hand the need for the colonial countries as furnishers of raw materials and as customers for the machines and manufactured goods of Britain and the United States. During the war we observed and we observe now the headlong industrialization of the colonial, semi-colonial and of the backward countries in general: Japan, India, South America, South Africa and so on. There is no doubt that if the Chinese Kuomintang party manages to unify China under a national-democratic regime then the capitalist development of China will go ahead with seven-mile strides. And yet all this will prepare the mobilization of the countless proletarian masses who will at once burst out of a prehistoric, semi-barbaric state and cast themselves into industry’s melting-pot, the factory. Consequently there will not be the time to conserve and accumulate the rubbish of past ages in the consciousness of the toilers; a guillotine will slice through their consciousness as it were, cutting off the past from the future and forcing them to seek new ideas, new forms and new paths of life and struggle. And so here there must appear on the scene in some countries and broadly and boldly develop in others, the Marxist-Leninist parties of the East: Japanese communists, Chinese communists, Turkish, Indian and so on.

Comrade toilers of the lands of the East! In 1883 there was formed in Switzerland the Russian ‘Emancipation of Labour’ group. Is that such a long time ago? From 1883 to 1900 it is 17 years and from 1900 to 1917 again 17 years, that is in all 34 years – one third of a century, one generation: from the organization of the first theoretical-propagandist circle of the ideas of Marxism during the reign of Alexander III until the conquest of Tsarist Russia by the proletariat there elapsed all in all one third of a century!

For whoever has lived through this it will seem a long and painful period. But from the point of view of the scales of history this represented an unprecedentedly furious and wild tempo. Yet in the countries of the East the tempo of development will by all indications be even more rapid. So what then is your Communist University for Toilers of the East in the light of the perspectives we have traced – what is it? It is the garden nursery for ‘Emancipation of Labour’ groups for the countries of the East. [tumultuous applause]

It is true, and one must not close one’s eyes to this, that the dangers facing young Marxists of the East are great. We know, and you will know, that it was in a grave external and also internal struggle that the Bolshevik Party was shaped. You know that Marxism, emasculated and falsified, was for us in the 1890s a school for an all-round political study of the bourgeois intelligentsia, of the Struvians who afterwards became the political henchmen of the bourgeoisie, the cadets, while many then went over to the Octobrists and even further to the right. Economically backward, Russia was in the political sense neither a differentiated nor a fully-formed country: Marxism spoke of the inevitability of capitalism and those bourgeois-progressive elements who wanted capitalism not for socialism but for itself accepted ‘Marxism’ having removed its revolutionary sting. The same thing happened in Rumania. The majority of today’s ruling scoundrels of Rumania have passed in their time through the margarine school of Marxism; some of them in France adhered to Guesdism. In Serbia a whole number of today’s conservative and reactionary politicians in their youth passed through the school of Marxism or Bakuninism.

This is less observable in Bulgaria. But in general this temporary exploitation of Marxism for the aims of a bourgeois-progressive policy characterizes the countries of the Balkan south-east, as it did our own country. Does such a danger threaten Marxism in the East? In part. Why? Because the national movement in the East is a progressive factor in history. The struggle for the independence of India is a profoundly progressive movement; but you and I know that at the same time this struggle is confined to national-bourgeois tasks. The struggle for the liberation of China, the ideology of Sun Yat-sen, is a democratic struggle and a progressive ideology, but bourgeois. We stand for the communists supporting the Kuomintang in China by driving it forward. This is essential but here there is also a danger of a national-democratic degeneration. And likewise in all the countries of the East which form the arena for the national struggle for liberation from colonial slavery. Upon this progressive movement the young proletariat of the East must rest; but it is absolutely clear that in the coming period there is for the young Marxists of the East, a danger of being torn out of the ‘Emancipation of Labour’ groups and dissolving themselves in nationalist ideology.

Wherein, however, lies your advantage? Your advantage over the older generations of Russian, Rumanian and other Marxists is that you are living and will live and work not only in the epoch after Marx but in the epoch after Lenin too. In your newspaper which the bureau of your cell so kindly sent me, with annotations, I read a heated polemic about Marx and Lenin. You polemicize with each other very severely; I say this to you, however, not in reproach. The question was presented there as if, in the opinion of some, Marx was only a theoretician – so the opposing side had depicted this position and it objected: ‘No, Marx was a revolutionary politician as was Lenin and with both Marx and Lenin theory and practice went hand in hand.’ In such an abstract formulation of the question this is undoubtedly true and beyond question; but there is still a difference between these two historical figures; a profound difference which grew not only from a divergence in personality but from a divergence of epochs too. Marxism of course is not an academic doctrine but a lever of revolutionary action; not for nothing Marx said: ‘Philosophers have sufficiently explained the world but now we must change it.’ But in the lifetime of Marx, in the era of the First International and then during the time of the Second International was there the opportunity of the movement of the working class utilizing Marxism totally and to the end? Did Marxism find then a genuine embodiment in action? No it didn’t. Did Marx have the opportunity and fortune to guide the application of his revolutionary theory to the decisive historical action: the conquest of power by the proletariat? No, he didn’t. Marx created his teaching not of course as an academic; he did, as you know, grow wholly out of the revolution, out of his estimation and criticism of the downfall of bourgeois democracy, wrote his Capital in 1847 and was active on the left flank of bourgeois democracy in the revolution of 1848 evaluating in a Marxist way, or in rather Marx’s way, all of its events; in London he wrote Capital; he was at the same time the creator of the First International, the inspirer of the policy of the most advanced groups in the working class of all countries; but he did not stand at the head of a party which decided the fate of the world nor even of one country. When we wish to answer briefly the question: who was Marx? we say: ‘Marx was the author of Capital’. And when we ask ourselves who Lenin was we will say: ‘Lenin was the author of the October revolution’. [Applause]. Lenin emphasized more than anyone else that he was out to revise, remake or review Marx’s teaching; Lenin came, to speak in the old words of the gospels, not to alter Marx’s law but in order to implement it. He himself more than anyone else emphasized this; but he at that time needed to release Marx from underneath the sediments of those generations which separated Lenin from Marx; from underneath the sediments of Kautskyism, MacDonaldism, the conservatism of the labour bosses, and the reformist and nationalist bureaucracy and to apply the tool of genuine Marxism once cleansed of sediments, additives and falsifications totally and wholly to the great historical action. And so your greatest advantage as the younger generation is that you have directly or indirectly participated in this work, that you have observed it, that you are living in the political and ideological environment of Leninism and that you are imbibing this theory which corresponds to practice in the University for Toilers of the East. This makes up your enormous and inestimable advantage and you must understand it. Although Marx himself could in his theory embrace the course of development of decades and centuries his teaching was then in the everyday struggle whittled down to its separate elements and in parts absorbed moreover in a distorted form. Lenin came along, gathered Marxism together once again and in the new conditions showed this teaching in the action of the greatest historical scale. You have seen this action and you have attached yourselves to it: this places you under an obligation and upon this obligation the Communist University for Toilers of the East has been built.

That is why, comrades, I think that the danger of a national-democratic degeneration which of course exists and which will seize and carry off some people for it cannot be otherwise, that this danger is greatly reduced by the very fact of the existence of the Soviet Union and of the Third International. There is every ground for hoping that the basic nucleus which will emerge from the Communist University for Toilers of the East will occupy its due place as a class leaven, a Marxist leaven and a Leninist leaven to the proletarian movement in the lands of the East. The demand for you, comrades, appears gigantic and it manifests itself, as I have already said, not gradually but all at once, also in its own way ‘catastrophically’. Read over one of Lenin’s last articles Better less but better: seemingly it is devoted to a specific organizational question but it at the same time embraces the perspectives for the development of the countries of the East in connection with the development of Europe. What is the main idea behind the article? The fundamental idea is that the development of the revolution in the West may be held up. How can it be held up? By MacDonaldism, for the most conservative force in Europe is in fact MacDonaldism. We can see how Turkey abolished the Caliphate and MacDonald resurrects it. Is this not a striking example which sharply contrasts in deed the counter-revolutionary Menshevism of the West to the progressive national-bourgeois democracy of the East?

Taking place at present in Afghanistan are truly dramatic events: MacDonald’s Britain is toppling the left national bourgeois wing which is striving to Europeanize independent Afghanistan and is attempting there to restore to power the darkest and most reactionary elements imbued with the worst prejudices of pan-Islamism, the Caliphate and so forth. If you weigh up these two forces in their living conflict, it will at once become clear why the East will more and more gravitate towards us, the Soviet Union and the Third International.

We can see how Europe, which through its past development preserved the monstrous conservatism of the bosses of the working class, is more and more undergoing economic disintegration. There is no way out for her. And this finds an expression in particular in the fact that America does not give her loans, rightly not trusting her economic viability. On the other hand we can see too that the same America and the same Britain are compelled to finance the economic development of the colonial countries thereby driving them along the path of revolution at a frantic rate. And if Europe is to be kept back amid the present state of putrefaction of the numskulled, parochial, aristocratic, privileged MacDonaldism of the labour bosses then the centre of gravity of the revolutionary movement is being transferred wholly and entirely to the East. And then it will emerge that although a number of decades of Britain’s capitalist development was necessary to act as a revolutionizing factor to raise up our old Russia and our old East on to their feet then it will now be necessary for the revolution in the East to come back to Britain to smash through or, if necessary, smash up some thick skulls and give an impulse to the revolution of the European proletariat. [applause] This is one of the historical possibilities. It must be kept in one’s mind’s eye.

I read in the documents you delivered to me about the gigantic impression a student from your university, a Turkish girl, created in Kazan where the women, some old and illiterate, gathered around her. A small episode it is but it does as an indicator have a profound historical meaning. The sense, the strength and the essence of Bolshevism lies in that it addresses itself not to the labour bosses but to the mob, the underdogs, the millions and to the most oppressed of the oppressed.

That is why it is not through its theoretical content, which is still far from assimilated, or fully thought out, but through its liberating breath of life that it has become the favourite teaching for the countries of the East. It is in your paper that we read ever fresh confirmations of the fact that Lenin is well known not only in the saklias of the Caucasus but in the depths of India too. We know that in China, toiling people, who have probably never in their life read a single one of Lenin’s articles, ardently gravitate towards Bolshevism for such is the might of history’s breath! They have sensed that here is a teaching which is addressed to the pariahs, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the millions and to the tens and hundreds of millions for whom there lies otherwise no historical solution for whom there is otherwise no salvation. And there is the reason why Leninism encounters such a fervent response in the hearts of toiling women – because there is no more oppressed layer on earth than the toiling woman! When I read how the student from your university spoke in Kazan and how the illiterate Tartar women gathered around her, I recalled my recent brief stay in Baku where for the first time I saw and heard a Turkic girl communist and where I could observe in the hall several tens and possibly hundreds of Turkic girl communists and saw and heard their enthusiasm, this passion of yesterday’s slave of slaves who has heard the new words of liberation and has awoken to a new life, and where for the first time I came to a quite clear conclusion and told myself that in the movement of the peoples of the East woman will play a greater role than in Europe and here. [applause] Why? just precisely because Eastern woman is incomparably more fettered, crushed and befuddled by prejudices than is the Eastern man and because new economic relations and new historical currents will tear her out of the old motionless relations with even greater force and abruptness than they will man. Even today we can still observe in the East the rule of Islam, of the old prejudices, beliefs and customs but these will more and more turn to dust and ashes. Just as a rotting piece of cloth, when you look at it from a distance, it seems to be all of a piece, all the pattern is there and all the folds remain but a movement of the hand or a puff of wind is enough for the whole cloth to turn to dust. And so in the East the old beliefs which appear to be so deep are actually but a shadow of the past: in Turkey they abolished the caliphate and not a single hair fell out of the heads of those who violated the caliphate; this means that the old beliefs have rotted and that with the coming historical movement of the toiling masses the old beliefs will not present a serious obstacle. And this, moreover, means that the Eastern woman who is the most paralyzed in life, in her habits and in creativity, the slave of slaves, that she, having at the demand of the new economic relations taken off her cloak will at once feel herself lacking any sort of religious buttress; she will have a passionate thirst to gain new ideas, a new consciousness which will permit her to appreciate her new position in society. And there will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the revolution and for the ideas of communism than the awakened woman worker. [applause]

Comrades, this is why your University has a universally historic importance. By making use of the ideological and political experience of the West it is preparing a great revolutionary leaven for the East. Your hour will soon strike. Finance capital of Britain and America is smashing the economic foundations of the East, throwing one layer of society against another, cracking the old and giving birth to a demand for the new. You will appear as sowers of the seeds of the ideas of communism and the revolutionary productivity of your work will be immeasurably higher than the productivity of the work of the old Marxist generations of Europe.

But, comrades, I would not like you to draw conclusions in the vein of some sort of Eastern arrogance from what I have said. [laughter] I can see that none of you here has taken me in this way… For if anyone of you were to be steeped in such a Messianistic arrogance and disdain for the West then from there it would be the shortest and quickest move to dissolving yourself in nationalist democratic ideology. No, the revolutionary communists of the East at their University must learn to study the world movement East and the West from the standpoint of one single great in its whole by juxtaposing and connecting the forces of the objective. You must know how to couple together the uprising of the Indus peasants, the strike of coolies in the port of China, the political propaganda of Kuomintang bourgeois democracy, the struggle of the Koreans for independence, the bourgeois-democratic rebirth of Turkey and the economic and cultural and educational work in the Soviet republic of Transcaucasia; you must know how, both ideologically and practically, to link all this with the work and struggle of the Communist International in Europe and in particular in Britain where the mote of British communism is slowly – more slowly than many of us would like – burrowing under MacDonald’s conservative bastion. [applause] Your third anniversary is of course in itself a very modest anniversary. Many of you are merely on the threshold of Marxism. But your advantage over the older generation lies, I repeat, in the fact that you are studying the ABC of Marxism not inside migr circles divorced from life in countries ruled by capitalism as was the case with us but upon soil conquered by Leninism, upon soil nurtured with Leninism and upon soil enveloped in the ideological atmosphere of Leninism. You are not only studying Marxism from pamphlets but you have the opportunity to inhale it in the political atmosphere of this country. This applies not only to those who have arrived here from the Eastern republics which constitute part of the Soviet Union but applies too to those – whose importance is of course in no way less! – who have made their appearance here from the oppressed colonial countries. Whether the final year of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism will unfold in one, two, three or five years’ time we do not know; but we do know that each year will produce a new crop from the Communist University of the East. Each year will provide a new nucleus of communists who know the ABC of Leninism and who have seen how this ABC is applied in practice. If one year passes by before the decisive events then we will have one crop; if two years pass by then we will have two; if three years pass we will have three crops. And at the moment of these decisive events the students of the Communist University for Toilers of the East will say: ‘We are here. We have learnt one thing. We know not only how to translate the ideas of Marxism and Leninism into the language of China, India, Turkey and Korea; but we have also learnt how to translate the sufferings, passions, demands and the hopes of the toiling masses of the East into the language of Marxism.’

’Who has taught you that?’ they will be asked.

’The Communist University for Toilers of the East taught us that.’ And then they will say what I shall say to you now on the day of your third anniversary:

’Glory, glory and glory to the Communist University of the East’ [noisy ovation and the Internationale].


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Last updated on: 6.1.2007