Leon Trotsky

The Stalin-Howard Interview

(March 1936)

Written: 18 March 1936.
First Published: The New Militant [New York], 4 April 1936.
Translated: The New Militant.
Transcription/HTML Markup: David Walters.
Public Domain: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

What Does the Experience with Mongolia Teach?

In Stalin’s interview with Roy Howard, the most important thing from a practical standpoint is the warning that the military intervention of the USSR is inevitable in the event of an attack by Japan on the Mongolian People’s Republic. Is this warning correct in the main? In our opinion, yes. It is correct not only because in question here is the defence of a weak state against a predatory imperialist beast – for if this alone were the guiding consideration, the USSR would be constantly at war with all the imperialist countries of the world. The Soviet Union is too weak for such a task, and in this weakness, we might immediately add, lies the only justification for the “pacifism” of its government.

But the question of Mongolia is a question of the most immediate strategical position of Japan in the war against the USSR. In this domain the limits of retreat must be resolutely fixed.

A few years ago the Soviet Union surrendered to Japan the Chinese Eastern Railroad, a position also of extreme strategic importance. At the time this action was acclaimed by the Communist International as a voluntary expression of pacifism. As a matter of fact, it was an act of compulsion due to weakness. The Comintern had ruined the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 by its policy of the “National Front.” This untied the hands of the imperialists. By surrendering an extremely important strategical line, the Soviet government thereby facilitated Japan’s seizures in Northern China and present assaults against Mongolia. It should now be clear even to the blind that abstract pacifism was not involved in the surrender of the railroad (if that were really the case, it would have been merely an act of stupidity and betrayal), but rather an unfavourable relationship of forces: the Chinese revolution had been annihilated, while the Red Army and the Red Navy were not ready for the struggle.

Now the situation has so obviously improved, in a military sense, that the Soviet government considers it possible to resort to a categorical veto on the question of Mongolia. We can only welcome the strengthening of the position of the USSR in the Far East, as well as the more critical attitude on the part of the Soviet government toward the ability of Japan, torn by contradictions, to wage a major, protracted war. It should be pointed out that the Soviet bureaucracy, while it is very bold toward its own toilers, easily falls into a panic when faced with imperialist opponents: the petty bourgeois is unceremonious when dealing with the proletarian, but stands ever in awe of the big bourgeois.

The official formula of the foreign policy of the USSR, widely advertised by the Comintern, reads as follows: “We do not seek an inch of foreign soil; neither will we surrender an inch of our own.” Yet, in the question of Mongolia, the defence of “our own soil” is not involved at all: Mongolia is an independent state. The defence of the revolution, as this small example shows, is not reducible to the defence of the frontiers. The true method of defence consists in weakening the positions of imperialism and in strengthening the positions of the proletariat and of the colonial peoples in the entire world. An unfavourable relationship of forces may compel, in the interests of saving the main base of the revolution, the surrender of many “inches” of soil to the enemy, as was the case in the epoch of Brest-Litovsk, and partly also in the case of the Chinese Eastern Railroad. And, on the other hand, a more favourable relationship of forces places on the workers’ state the duty to come to the assistance of the revolutionary movement in other countries, not only morally but also, if need be, with the assistance of armed force: wars of emancipation are an integral part of revolutions of emancipation.

Thus, the experience with Mongolia shatters to pieces the ideology of conservative pacifism, which bases itself upon historical frontiers as though they were the Ten Commandments. The frontiers of the USSR are only the temporary front-line trenches of the class struggle. They lack even a national justification. The Ukrainian people – to take only one of many examples – is cut in two by the state boundary. Should favourable conditions arrive, the Red Army would be duty-bound to come to the aid of the Western Ukraine, which is under the heel of the Polish executioners. It is not difficult to imagine the gigantic impulse that would be given to the revolutionary movement in Poland and in the whole of Europe by the unification of a workers’ and peasants’ Ukraine. All state frontiers are only fetters upon the productive forces. The task of the proletariat is not to preserve the status quo, i.e., to perpetuate the frontiers, but on the contrary to work for their revolutionary elimination with the aim of creating the Socialist United States of Europe and of the entire world. But to make such an international policy possible, if not at present then in the future, it is imperative for the Soviet Union to free itself from the rule of the conservative bureaucracy, with its religion of “socialism in one country.”

Wherein Lies the Cause of War?

In reply to Howard’s question as to what causes underlie the threat of war, Stalin said, in accordance with tradition: “Capitalism.” As proof he cited the last war, which “arose from the desire to divide the world.” But remarkably enough, no sooner does Stalin pass from the past to the present, from dim theoretical recollections to real politics, than capitalism immediately disappears, and in its place are to be found individual evil-minded cliques that are incapable of grasping the benefits of peace. To the question of whether war is inevitable, Stalin replies: “In my opinion the positions of the friends of peace are being strengthened. The friends of peace can work openly (!), they base themselves upon the force of public opinion, and they have at their disposal such instruments as, for example (!!!), the League of Nations. This is an asset for the friends of peace ... As for the enemies of peace, they are compelled to work secretly. This is a liability for the enemies of peace. Incidentally, it is not excluded that precisely because of this (?) they may decide upon a military adventure as an act of despair.”

Thus, we find that humanity is divided not into classes, nor into imperialist states warring with each other, but into “friends” and “enemies” of peace, i.e., into saints and sinners. The cause for war (at any rate, for future if not past wars) is not capitalism, which breeds irreconcilable contradictions, but the ill will of the “enemies of peace,” who “work secretly,” while the French, British, Belgian, and other slave owners do their work in broad daylight. But precisely because the enemies of peace, like all evil spirits, work secretly, they may, in a fit of despair, plunge into an adventure. Who needs this philosophic mush? At best it can be of service only to some old ladies’ pacifist society.

As we have had the occasion to state before, the agreement between the Soviets and France gives infinitely more guarantees to France than to the Soviets. In the negotiations with Paris, Moscow evinced a lack of firmness, or, to put it more bluntly, Laval fooled Stalin. The events in connection with the Rhineland are an indisputable confirmation that with a more realistic appraisal of the situation, Moscow could have wrung from France much more serious guarantees, insofar as pacts in general can be considered “guarantees” in the present epoch of sharp turns in the situation, continuous crises, break-ups, and regroupments. But as we have already said, the Soviet bureaucracy shows much greater firmness in the struggle against the advanced workers than in negotiations with bourgeois diplomats. But no matter how he might evaluate the Franco-Soviet pact, not a single serious-minded proletarian revolutionist ever denied or denies the right of the Soviet state to seek an auxiliary support for its inviolability through a temporary agreement with French or some other imperialism. For this purpose, however, there is not the slightest need to call black white and to re-baptize bloody brigands as “friends of peace.” As an example to be emulated, one might take, let us say, the new ally, the French bourgeoisie: in concluding the agreement with the Soviets the French bourgeoisie presents this action very soberly without becoming lyrical, without lavishing any compliments, and even maintaining a constant undertone of warning against the Soviet government. However bitter it may be, it is necessary to speak the truth. Laval, Sarraut, and their associates have shown a great deal more firmness and dignity in defending the interests of the bourgeois state than did Stalin and Litvinov in the service of the workers’ state.

Surely, it is difficult to conceive a more vicious stupidity than that which divides the world brigands into friends and enemies of peace! One could still speak, in a certain sense, about the friends and enemies of the status quo: but these are two entirely different things. The status quo is not the organization of “peace,” but the organization of the infamous oppression exercised by a minority over the overwhelming majority of mankind. The status quo is being maintained by means of constant warfare within the sacred boundaries and beyond their precincts (England – in India and Egypt; France – in Syria; de la Rocque – in France). The difference between the two camps, which are, besides, very unstable, consists in the fact that some of the brigands think it more advisable even today to maintain the existing boundaries of oppression and enslavement with arms in hand, whereas others would prefer to blow up these boundaries sooner. This correlation of appetites and plans is itself continually changing. Italy favours a status quo in Europe but not in Africa; yet every assault upon the boundaries in Africa is immediately reflected in Europe. Hitler decided to send troops into the Rhineland only because Mussolini had succeeded in slaughtering several thousand Ethiopians. Where should we enroll Italy: among the friends or the enemies of peace? And yet, France cherishes friendship with Italy infinitely more than friendship with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, England is courting the friendship of Germany.

The “friends of peace” work in the open (who would have thought it!) and have at their disposal “such instruments as, for example, the League of Nations.” What other “instruments” have the friends of peace, outside the League of Nations? Obviously, they have the Comintern and the Amsterdam-Pleyel Committee. Stalin failed to mention these auxiliary “instruments” partly because he himself does not attach any great importance to them, and partly because he did not want to frighten his interlocutor unnecessarily. But Stalin does completely transform the League of Nations, which has been fully discredited in the eyes of all mankind, into a bulwark of peace, the prop and hope of nations.

In order to utilize the imperialist antagonisms between France and Germany there was not and is not the slightest need for idealizing the bourgeois ally or the particular combination of imperialists that temporarily screens itself behind the League of Nations. The crime does not he in this or another practical deal concluded with imperialists but in the fact that both the Soviet government and the Comintern are dishonestly embellishing their episodic allies and the League; are duping the workers with slogans of disarmament and “collective security”; and thereby are actively transformed into the political agency of imperialism in relation to the working masses.

The program of the Bolshevik Party drafted by Lenin in 1919 replied to all these questions with remarkable clarity and simplicity. But who thinks about this document in the Kremlin? Today, Stalin and Company find embarrassing even the eclectic program of the Comintern compiled by Bukharin in 1928. For this reason we think it useful to quote from the program of the Bolshevik Party on the question of the League of Nations and the friends of peace. Here is what it states:

“The growing pressure on the part of the proletariat and especially the victories gained by the latter in various countries tend to increase the resistance of the exploiters and engender on their part the creation of new forms of the international unification of the capitalists (League of Nations, etc.), which, while organizing on a world scale the systematic exploitation of all the peoples on earth, aim their immediate efforts toward the direct suppression of the revolutionary movements of the proletariat in all countries.

“All this inevitably leads to the correlation of civil war within the individual states with the revolutionary wars both of the proletarian countries defending themselves as well as of the oppressed peoples struggling against the yoke of the imperialist powers.

“Under these conditions the slogans of pacifism, of international disarmament under capitalism, of arbitration courts, and so on, are not only a reactionary utopia but also a downright swindle of the toilers aimed to disarm the proletariat and to distract the workers away from the task of disarming the exploiters.”

It is precisely this criminal work that both Stalin and the Comintern are fulfilling: they are sowing reactionary utopias, swindling the toilers, disarming the proletariat.

The “Comic Misunderstanding” about the World Revolution

Nobody compelled Stalin to satisfy Howard’s thirst for knowledge on the question of the world revolution. If Stalin gave the interview as the unofficial head of the government (and this is indicated by his statement with regard to Mongolia), then he could have simply referred his interlocutor to Dimitrov on questions about the world revolution. But no, Stalin went into explanations. At first sight it appears entirely incomprehensible why he should have thereby compromised himself so cruelly by his cynical and, sad to say, not at all clever disquisitions about the world revolution. But he is driven onto this slippery road by an insurmountable need: he must break with the past.

What about the plans and intentions relating to the revolution? asks the visitor.

“We never (!) had such plans and intentions.”

But, what about ...

“This is all the result of a misunderstanding.”

Howard: “;A tragic misunderstanding?”

Stalin: “No, a comic, or, perhaps, a tragicomic one.”

It is embarrassing even to read and transcribe these lines, they are so inappropriate and indecent. For whom is this ... wisdom intended? Even the pacifist ladies will reject it.

Asks Stalin: “What danger can the neighbouring states see in the ideas of the Soviet people, if these states are really firmly placed in the saddle?” Very well, permit us to ask, what about those who are not placed firmly in the saddle? Yet that is how matters stand in reality. Precisely because its position is precarious, the bourgeoisie fears Soviet ideas, not Stalin’s ideas but those ideas that led to the creation of the Soviet state. To soothe the bourgeoisie, Stalin adduces a supplementary argument: “The export of revolution is nonsense. Every country, should it so desire, will itself achieve its own revolution, and if it does not desire it, there will be no revolution. Now, for example, our country desired to make a revolution and made it ...” And more of the same, in the same smug, pedantic tone. From the theory of socialism in one country Stalin has completely and decisively passed over to the theory of revolution in one country. If a “country” so desires, it will make it; should it not desire it – it won’t make it. Now, “we,” for example, desired it ... But before desiring it, “we” imported the ideas of Marxism from other countries and made use of foreign revolutionary experience. In the course of decades, “we” had our émigré organization in other countries which directed the revolutionary struggle in Russia. In order to give a methodical and active character to the exchange of experience between countries and their mutual revolutionary support, “we” organized the Communist International in the year 1919. “We” more than once proclaimed as the duty of the proletariat of a victorious country to come to the assistance of the rising peoples – with advice, material means, and, if possible, with armed force. All these ideas (incidentally, they bear the names of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht) are written down in the most important programmatic documents of the Bolshevik Party and of the Comintern. Stalin has proclaimed that all this is a misunderstanding! A tragic one? No, a comic one. Not for nothing has Stalin recently announced that it has become “merry” to live in the Soviet Union: now even the Communist International has become transformed from a serious entity into a comedian. And how could it be otherwise, if the international character of the revolution is mere and sheer “nonsense”?

Stalin would have made a much more convincing impression upon his interlocutor, if instead of impotently slandering the past (“we never had such plans and intentions”), he had on the contrary openly counterposed his own policy to the antiquated “plans and intentions” which have been relegated to the museum. Stalin might have read Howard the very same quotation from the program which we gave above, and then made approximately the following brief speech: “In the eyes of Lenin the League of Nations was an organization for the bloody suppression of the toilers. But we see in it – an instrument of peace. Lenin spoke of the inevitability of revolutionary wars. But we consider the export of revolution – nonsense. Lenin branded the alliance between the proletariat and the national bourgeoisie as a betrayal. But we are doing all in our power to drive the French proletariat onto this road. Lenin lashed the slogan of disarmament under capitalism as an infamous swindle of the toilers. But we build our entire policy upon this slogan. Your comical misunderstanding” – that is how Stalin could have concluded – “consists in the fact that you take us for the continuators of Bolshevism, whereas we are its grave diggers.”

Such an explanation would have dispelled the last shreds of suspicion of the world bourgeoisie and would have definitely established Stalin’s reputation as a statesman. Unfortunately, he does not dare as yet to resort to such frank language. The past binds him, the traditions hamper him, the phantom of the Opposition frightens him. We come to the assistance of Stalin. In accordance with our rule, in the present case, too, we openly say what is.

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007