Leon Trotsky

The Sino-Soviet Conflict
and The Opposition

Written: August 4, 1929 in Contantinipole (Istanbul)
First Published: The Militant, New York, Vol. 2 No. 14, September 15, 1929
Source: Microfilm collection and original bound volumes for The Militant provided by the Holt Labor Library, San Francisco, California.
Transcription/HTML Markup: D. Walters
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On July 22 I gave the following statement in answer to an American news agency questionnaire:

“I can give my view on Sino-Soviet relations, of course, only as an individual. I have no information except what is in the newspapers. In cases of this kind, information in the newspapers is always insufficient.

“There can be no doubt that aggressiveness has been manifested not by the Soviet, but by the Chinese government. The managing apparatus of the Chinese Eastern Railroad has existed for a number of years. The workers’ organizations that the Chinese régime has attacked have also existed for some time. The existing administrative arrangement for the Chinese Eastern Railroad was carefully worked out this last time by a special commission under my chairmanship. The commission’s decisions were approved in April 1926 and completely protect Chinese interests.

“The conduct of the present Chinese government is explained by the fact that it was made stronger by the crushing defeat of the workers and peasants. I will not discuss here the reasons for the defeat of the revolutionary movement of the Chinese people because I have dealt sufficiently with this theme in my previously published works. The government, having risen out of a completely routed revolution, as always in such cases, feels weak in relation to those forces against which the revolution was directed, i.e., above all against British and Japanese imperialism. Therefore, it is compelled to try to enhance its power and influence by making adventuristic gestures toward its revolutionary neighbour.

“Must this provocation that developed out of the defeat of the Chinese revolution lead to war? I don’t think so. Why? Because the Soviet government does not want war, and the Chinese government is not capable of waging it.

“The army of Chiang Kai-shek was victorious in 1925-27 [ against the warlords ] thanks to the revolutionary upsurge of the masses. In turning against them, the army has forfeited its chief source of strength. As a purely military organization, Chiang Kai-shek’s army is extremely weak. Chiang Kai-shek cannot help but realize that the Soviet government is well aware of the weakness of his army. It is unthinkable that Chiang Kai-shek could wage a war against the Red Army without the aid of other powers. It is more accurate to say that Chiang Kai-shek would wage war only if his army were merely the auxiliary detachment to the forces of another power. I do not believe that at this time such a combination is very likely, especially in light of the Soviet government’s sincere desire, as indicated above, to settle problems by peaceful means….

“It goes without saying that in the event that war is imposed on the Soviet people, the Opposition will devote itself fully to the cause of defending the October Revolution.”

I thought that in this statement I had expressed the viewpoint of the Communist Left Opposition as a whole. I regret to say that this is not entirely true. Individuals and groups have come forward in the Opposition that, on the occasion of their first serious political test, have taken either an equivocal or a basically wrong position, a position outside their own revolutionary Opposition camp or one which brought them very close to the camp of the Social Democracy.

In Die Fahne des Kommunismus, number 26, there was an article written by one H.P. According to this article, the conflict was caused by an encroachment on China’s right of self-determination by the Soviet republic. In other words, it was in essence a defence of Chiang Kai-shek. I shall not deal with this article, since H.P. received a correct reply from Comrade Kurt Landau, who dealt with this question as behooves a Marxist.

The editor of Fahne des Kommunismus printed the article as a discussion article, with a note that he is not in solidarity with the author. It is incomprehensible that a discussion could be opened on a question that is so elementary for every revolutionary, particularly at a time political action is called for. The thing became even worse when the editor of the paper also published Landau’s contribution as a “discussion article.” H.P.’s article expresses the prejudices of vulgar democracy combined with those of anarchism. Landau’s article formulates the Marxist position. And what about the position of the editor?

Something incomparably worse occurred in one of the numerous groups of the French Opposition. Number 35 of Contre le courant (July 28, 1929) had an editorial on the Sino-Soviet conflict which is a sorry mess of errors from beginning to end, partly of a Social-Democratic and partly of an ultraleft character. The editorial begins with the statement that the adventuristic policy of the Soviet bureaucracy is responsible for the conflict; in other words, the paper assumes the role of Chiang Kai-shek’s attorney. The editorial puts the policy of the Soviet government toward the Chinese Eastern Railroad in the category of a capitalist, imperialist policy, which resorts to the support of the imperialist powers.

“The Communist Opposition,” the editorial states, “cannot support Stalin’s war, which is not a defensive war of the proletariat but a semi-colonial war.” Elsewhere it says: “The Opposition must have the courage to tell the working class that it is not falling into line with the Stalinist bureaucrats, that it is not for their adventuristic war.” This sentence is emphasized in the original, and not by accident. It expresses the whole point of the editorial and thereby puts the author into implacable opposition to the Communist Left.

In what sense is the Stalinist bureaucracy responsible for the present conflict? In this sense and no other: that it helped Chiang Kai-shek by its previous policy to destroy the revolution of the Chinese workers and peasants. I wrote about this in an article directed against Radek and Company: “Chiang Kai-shek’s provocation is the settlement of expenses incurred by Stalin in the defeat of the Chinese revolution. We gave warning hundreds of times: after Stalin has helped Chiang Kai-shek to settle in the saddle, Chiang Kai-shek would, at the first opportunity, draw his whip on him. That is what has happened.”

Chiang Kai-shek’s provocation was preceded by his crushing of the Chinese revolution. What we have now is an adventure of the Bonapartist military power headed by Chiang Kai-shek. This provocation is at the root of the Sino-Soviet conflict.

According to the editorial, the principal cause of the conflict is the imperialist “claim” of the Soviet republic on the Chinese Eastern Railroad. Hands off China! shout the involuntary defenders of Chiang Kai-shek, repeating not only the slogans but also the basic arguments of the Social Democrats. Up until now we believed that only the capitalist bourgeoisie as a class could be the representatives of an imperialist policy. Is there anything to indicate the contrary? Or has such a class taken power in the USSR? Since when? We are fighting against the centrism of the Stalinist bureaucracy (remember: centrism is a tendency within the working class itself) because centrist policies may help the bourgeoisie to gain power, first the petty and middle bourgeoisie and, eventually, finance capital. This is the historical danger; but this is a process that is by no means at the point of completion.

In the same issue of Contre le courant, there is a so-called draft of a platform. In it we read among other things: “We cannot say that Thermidor has already taken hold.” This shows that continual repetition of the general formulas of the Opposition is far from equivalent to a political understanding of those formulas. If we cannot say that Thermidor is an accomplished fact, then we cannot say that Soviet policy has become a capitalist, or imperialist, policy. Centrism zigzags between the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie. To identify centrism with big capital is to understand nothing, and thereby to support finance capital not only against the proletariat, but also against the petty bourgeoisie.

The theoretical wisdom of the ultralefts in Berlin and Paris boils down to a few democratic abstractions, which have a geographical, not a socialist basis. The Chinese Eastern Railroad runs through Manchuria, which belongs to China. China has a right to self-determination; therefore, the claim of Soviet Russia to this railroad is imperialism. It should be turned over. To whom? To Chiang Kai-shek? Or to the son of Chang Tso-lin?

During the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, von Kuehlmann introduced the demand for an independent Latvia and Estonia, referring to the fact that the Landtags established there with the aid of Germany had instructed him to demand separation. We refused to sanction this, and we were denounced by the entire official German press as imperialists.

Let us assume that in the Caucasus there is an outbreak of counter-revolution which, with the help of, say, England, achieves victory. Let us also assume that the workers of Baku, with the help of the Soviet Union, succeed in keeping the whole area of Baku in their hands. It goes without saying that the Transcaucasian counter-revolution would lay claim to this district of Baku. It is perfectly clear that the Soviet Republic would not consent to this. Is it not also clear that in such a case the enemy would accuse the Soviet government of imperialism?

Had the revolution of the Chinese workers and peasants been victorious, there wouldn’t be any difficulty whatsoever about the Chinese Eastern Railroad. The lines would have been turned over to the victorious Chinese people. But the fact of the matter is that the Chinese people were defeated by the ruling Chinese bourgeoisie, with the aid of foreign imperialism. To turn over the railroad to Chiang Kai-shek under such conditions would mean to give aid and comfort to the Chinese Bonapartist counter-revolution against the Chinese people. This itself is decisive. But there is another consideration of equal weight. Chiang Kai-shek never could get those lines by virtue of his own financial-political means – let alone keep them. It is hardly an accident that he tolerates the actual independence of Manchuria existing under a Japanese protectorate. The railroad lines transferred to Chiang Kai-shek would only become security for the foreign loans he received. They would pass into the hands of the real imperialists and would become their most important economic and strategic outpost in the Far East – against a potential Chinese revolution and against the Soviet republic. We are well aware that the imperialists understand perfectly how to utilize the slogan of self-determination for their own dirty deals. But I don’t believe that Marxists are under any obligation to help them put it over.

The point of departure for the ultralefts is the fact that it was the greedy and thievish imperialism of the Tsar that took the Chinese Eastern Railroad from the Chinese people. This is a fact that cannot be disputed. Yet they forget to point out this was the same imperialism that dominated the Russian people. Yes, this railroad was constructed for the purpose of robbing the Chinese workers and peasants. But it was constructed by the exploitation and the robbery of the Russian workers and peasants. Then the October Revolution took place. Did this alter the mutual relations of the Chinese and the Russians? On the foundation of the revolution, after a period of reaction, the state structure was rebuilt. Did Russia now return to the starting point? Can we now imagine, from a historical viewpoint – regardless of Stalin and Molotov, regardless of the exile of the Opposition, etc., etc. – can we imagine an ownership of the Chinese Eastern Railroad that would be more beneficial from the point of view of the international proletariat and the Chinese revolution than that of the Soviet Union? This is how we ought to put the question.

All the White Guard émigrés look upon this question from a class viewpoint, not from a nationalist or a geographical one. In spite of internal dissension, the leading groups of the Russian émigrés agree that the internationalization of the Chinese Eastern Railroad, that is, its transference to the control of world imperialism, would be more advantageous to the “coming,” that is, bourgeois, Russia than leaving it in the possession of the Soviet state. By the same token, we can say that its remaining under the control of the Soviet government would be more advantageous to an independent China than turning it over to any of the present claimants.

Does this mean that the managing apparatus of the lines is perfect? No! Indeed not. Tsarist imperialism has left its traces. All the zigzags of Soviet internal policy are undoubtedly also reflected in the apparatus of the lines. The tasks of the Opposition extend to these questions as well.

I would like to refer to my personal experience in this matter. I had to fight more than once for an improvement in the administration of the Chinese railroad. The last time I worked on this question was in March 1926 on a special commission of which I was chairman. The members of the commission were Voroshilov, Dzerzhinsky, and Chicherin. In full agreement with the Chinese revolutionaries, not only the Communists but also the representatives of the then functioning Kuomintang, the commission considered absolutely necessary: “strictly keeping the actual apparatus of the CERR in the hands of the Soviet government – which in the next period is the only way to protect the railroad from imperialist seizure ….”

With regard to the administration in the interim, the resolution adopted on the question had this to say: “It is necessary to immediately adopt broad measures of a cultural-political nature aimed at Sinofication of the railroad.

“a. The administration should be bilingual; station signs and instructions posted in the stations and in the cars, etc., should be bilingual.

“b. Chinese schools for railroad workers should be established combining technical and political training.

“c. At appropriate points along the railroad, cultural-educational institutions should be established for the Chinese workers and the Chinese settlements adjacent to the railroad.”

With regard to the policy of the Russian representatives toward China, the resolution said: “There is absolutely no doubt that in the actions of the various departmental representatives there were inadmissible great-power mannerisms compromising the Soviet administration and creating an impression of Soviet imperialism.

“It is necessary to impress upon the corresponding agencies and persons the vital importance for us of such a policy and of even such an external form of the policy in relation to China so that any trace of suspicion of great-power intentions will be eliminated. This policy – based on the closest attention to China’s rights, on emphasizing its sovereignty, etc. – must be carried out on every level. In every individual instance of a violation of this policy, no matter how slight, the culprits should be punished and this fact brought to the attention of Chinese public opinion.”

In addition to this I must point out that the Chinese owners of the railroad, including Chiang Kai-shek, put against the management of the railroad not a Chinese but mainly a White-Guardist apparatus on the payroll of the imperialists of the world. The White Guards employed in the police and military squads of the Chinese lines have frequently committed acts of violence against the railroad workers. Regarding this, the resolution passed by the commission said the following:

“…It is necessary right now to carefully compile (and subsequently examine) all cases of tyranny and violence on the part of Chinese militarists, police, and Russian White Guard elements against Russian workers and employees of the CERR, and also all cases of conflict between Russians and Chinese on national-social grounds. It is also necessary to devise the course and means for defending the personal and national dignity of Russian workers so that conflicts on this basis rather than kindling chauvinist sentiments on both sides, on the contrary, will have a political and educational significance. It is necessary to set up special conciliation commissions or courts of honour attached to the trade unions, with both sides participating on an equal basis, under the actual guidance of serious Communists who understand the full importance and acuteness of the national question.”

I believe that this is a far cry from imperialism. I believe that the ultralefts have a good chance to learn something from this. I am also ready to admit that not all of our resolutions have been carried out. There were probably more unlawful acts on the railroad than in Moscow. That is precisely why the Opposition wages an implacable struggle. Yet it is a poor politician who throws out the baby with the bath water.

I have already shown the sense in which the Stalinist faction is responsible for Chiang Kai-shek’s provocations. But even if we assume that Stalin’s bureaucrats have acted foolishly again, and have thereby helped the enemy to strike a blow against the Soviet republic, what conclusions should we draw? The conclusion that we must not defend the Soviet republic? Or the conclusion that we must free the Soviet republic from the Stalinist leadership? The Contre le courant editorial has outrageously come to the first conclusion. It states that we must not support Stalin’s bureaucracy and its adventuristic war, as though in the event of war the Stalinist bureaucracy would be at stake and not the October Revolution and its potentialities. In order to display more of its wisdom, the editorial continues: “It is not up to the Opposition to find some special remedy in the present crisis.” We cannot imagine a worse position. This is not the view of a revolutionary, but of a disinterested spectator. What shall the Russian revolutionary do? What shall the fighters of the Opposition do in case of war? Shall they perhaps take a neutral position? The author of the editorial does not seem to think of this. And that is because he is not guided by the viewpoint of a revolutionary who will unconditionally enlist in the war, but proceeds like a notary who records the actions of both parties without intervening.

The Stalinists have accused us more than once of being defeatists or conditional defencists. I spoke on this subject at a joint plenary session of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission on August 1, 1927. I said: “The lie of conditional defencism …we fling back into the faces of the calumniators.”

In this way I repudiated the idea of neutrality and of conditional defence, called it a slander, and hurled the slander back into the teeth of the Stalinists. Did the author of the editorial fail to notice this? And if he didn’t – why did he not attack me? The speech to which I refer was printed in my recent book, published in French under the title La Revolution défigurée.

When I spoke, I did not deal with a specific war, but with any war that might be waged against the Soviet republic. Only an ignoramus could fail to see from the combination of the preceding events a basic antagonism between the imperialist powers and Soviet Russia. Yes, concerning my visa the imperialists are in cheerful accord with Stalin. But when it comes to the question of the Soviet republic, they all remain its mortal enemies, irrespective of Stalin. Every war would expose this antagonism and inevitably result in endangering the very existence of the Soviet Union. That is why I said in that speech:

“Do we, the Opposition, cast any doubts on the defence of the socialist fatherland? Not in the slightest degree. It is our hope not only to participate in the defence, but to be able to teach others a few things. Do we cast doubts on Stalin’s ability to sketch a correct line for the defence of the socialist fatherland? We do so and, indeed, to the highest possible degree.

“…The Opposition is for the victory of the USSR; it has proved and will continue to prove this in action, in a manner inferior to none. But Stalin is not concerned with that. Stalin has essentially a different question in mind, which he dares not express, namely, ‘Does the Opposition really think that the leadership of Stalin is incapable of assuring victory to the USSR?’ Yes, we think so.”

Zinoviev: “Correct!”

“…Not a single Oppositionist will renounce his right and his duty, on the eve of war, or during the war, to fight for the correction of the party’s course – as has always been the case in our party – because therein lies the most important condition for victory. To sum up. For the socialist fatherland? Yes! For the Stalinist course? No!”

I believe that this position retains its full force at the present moment as well.

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Last updated on: 30 May 2021