Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume 1

The Decline of British Imperialism

Anglo-Soviet Relations

The international revolution has not come as soon as we wished; there remain, if not decades, then more than weeks. It is hard to say how long it will be before the world revolution comes. Therefore it cannot be said with any certainty that no one else will make an attempt to start a war with us. The place from where a new danger could threaten us is Batumi. [1] A year and a half ago negotiations were held with the British over the leasing of Batumi. It was not leased to her, but Britain could attempt to take it by force. If such an attempt proved successful Georgia would turn into a bridgehead where the remnants of Wrangel’s [2] army could be thrown and we would thus have an ABCs in the Caucasus. With all our love of peace we must be prepared for war. Batumi is not important to us but the Caucasian Front is, and our diplomacy has stated this clearly; when in turn it inquired of Lord Curzon [3] as to Britain’s intentions with regard to Batumi, he answered with the question whether we intended to occupy it. What does Curzon’s reply mean? The world bourgeoisie was amazed at Wrangel’s rapid rout, but after a brief respite found a new slogan for agitation and launched it by spreading rumours about an alleged new assault by us on Georgia.

In the Caucasus generally our position is not altogether favourable. Venizelos” Greece was a tool of the Entente against Turkey; now at the elections Venizelos’ [4] party has received a minority and the Germanophile party has come forward; this is more advantageous to us as it will move – even if shyly and uncertainly – against the Entente. Britain and France cannot rely on Turkey in present conditions, but they can promise her Baku; that is, they can settle with her from our account. Thus it is clear that we have dangers ahead of us in the Caucasus. But we can prepare this front with a small concentration of forces and reinsure ourselves with regard to Batumi and Baku.

From a speech to secretaries of Moscow party cells, 26th November 1920
(There are No More Fronts)

* * *

What however are the possible chances of intervention, and above all what are the possible forms that intervention might take? Independent military action by any of the major European powers is not counted on even by the Russian émigrés. But they do expect of” the capitalist governments, and the French especially, active assistance for Russia’s lesser adversaries on the one hand, and the presentation of definite demands with regard to aid for the famine on the other. [5]

Let us begin with the latter idea. Its absurdity is quite apparent. Conditions, and in the form of an ultimatum at that, have already been put to us. They were rejected. Then followed the period of interventions and blockades. We stood firm. The capitalist states were compelled by the logic of the situation to open negotiations with us. We went to meet them. A trade agreement with Britain was signed by both sides, in which Lloyd George [6] drew the conclusions from past experience and did not dream of presenting any conditions whatsoever relating to Russia’s internal regime. [7] One surely cannot believe that this same Lloyd George would decide to put forward political demands over the question of philanthropic aid? A crazy idea! Even if one were to allow for a moment the impossible, namely that a rabid supporter of Milyukov, Burtsev and Kuskova [8] took over from Lloyd George and presented political conditions to us, it is quite obvious that this could only end in the greatest discomfiture for him. It is self-evident that we would turn down any talks on such a basis …

From a speech to the Moscow Soviet, 30th August 1921
(The Famine and the World Situation)

* * *

The fact that in such a devastated, exhausted and deeply shaken country as Russia a famine which gripped tens of millions of people has not brought the Soviet apparatus to a state of complete helplessness; that Soviet power has from the very start begun to make vigorous efforts to ensure the winter sowing of the Volga lands, already achieving the first successes in this direction; that the apparatus continues to work even under such extremely arduous conditions – all this demonstrates to the bourgeoisie, part of which was beginning to realize this even before the famine, that Soviet power is not a passing or temporary phenomenon but a factor to be reckoned with for a definite number of years to come. The British bourgeoisie has evidently understood this fully enough. The British bourgeoisie is, broadly speaking, the most perceptive: it has been said long ago that it thinks in centuries and continents. The British bourgeoisie has forged its might over centuries and grown used to looking a long way ahead, and is led by politicians who concentrate the whole past experience of their class in their consciousness.

Lloyd George said: “It is not a matter of philanthropy but a matter of returning Russia to a state of economic equilibrium and this can be done by establishing a regular economic alliance with Soviet Russia”. Lloyd George hopes that regular economic commercial relations will lead us to restore our economy and believes that it is as little possible to bring us down by famine as it was by military intervention. Thus we have here a seeming paradox. the famine, a profoundly negative fact, has not weakened us internationally but rather strengthened us. The bourgeois newspapers write: “Yes, this power must have living roots, it has withstood the scourge of the famine, we will have to reckon with it, there is no one else who can replace it.’

From a speech to the Zhitomir Soviet, 5th September 1921

* * *

The European bourgeoisie has at once begun to weigh things up this way and that, in order to determine its orientation. Britain wondered whether she had made a mistake by entering economic relations with us, at a time when the famine could perhaps have laid bare our insolvency and approaching collapse.

Those elements in the ranks of the French bourgeoisie who have had enough of awaiting the long promised downfall of Soviet power have now obtained a preponderance and have started to insist upon the inevitability of our collapse more stubbornly, together with the need to assist this collapse by military intervention. It has finally emerged that the public opinion of the European bourgeoisie has split into two basic groupings. I do not want to talk about the feelings of the western proletariat and its pressing desire to help us (the proletariat of Europe and America has shown its sympathy as far as its strength permits, by raising money, agitation and so on) because from the standpoint of the international situation it is the policy of the ruling bourgeoisie that has an immediate significance for the moment. So the orientation of the bourgeoisie has followed two lines. On the one hand, the bourgeoisie – that of Britain for instance which Lloyd George represents – has come to realize what has come about and said to itself. “No, this regime is stronger than we thought. If it could endure such a terrible disaster as the famine which struck tens of millions of human beings in such a weakened and exhausted country, and if the state machine did not split at the seams – if Soviet power did not lose its head but concentrated its attention on the very vital tasks of sowing the Volga lands; if it managed in the very first days to gather millions of poods of seed so as to save the Volga peasant economy for the following year, then this regime must have firm roots.” The British bourgeoisie is of course hostile to us, but it is perceptive and said to itself that there is in Soviet Russia no other force apart from the Communist Party and the working class organized into the state capable of maintaining law and order and assuming the functions of government.

From a speech to the 4th All-Russian Congress
of the Russian Communist League of Youth, 21st September 1921

* * *

Today the telegraph has brought news that the British government has taken a decision not to give aid to our famine-stricken people. This telegram evidently strictly reflects reality: not because Lloyd George had reckoned seriously on the collapse of Soviet power, but because the decision itself was very symptomatic. It means that pre-Genoa hesitations are being experienced and Lloyd George, whose position has become somewhat less stable, in order to insure himself with that section of bourgeois public opinion which opposes an agreement with us, has tossed a bone to those irreconcilable capitalists by a decision which is in itself of course quite “legal”: one cannot force the British government to give relief to the Volga famine.

But on the other hand this decision when taken in conjunction with commentaries in several semi-official British newspapers, acquires a semi-demonstrative character. One of the papers, the Daily Chronicle says that, I quote, “the refusal of the British government to give relief is caused by the fact that Soviet power still maintains the Red Army ...” So is the British government intending to propose at Genoa disarmament or the reduction of armies? As far as we are concerned, then of course no obstacles need be expected to any measures which will relieve the peoples of the military burden. While preparations go ahead all along the line for new blows against us in the spring and while the French general staff has presented the Petlyura-ites through its military mission such an “innocuous” gift as a tank, the British government, to judge from the Daily Chronicle, is astonished that we are maintaining the Red Army! Yes, we shall maintain it simply because we well remember (and I started with this) the experience of the conference on the Prinkipo Islands: after the conference on the Prinkipo Islands which was never held, we lived through a dark and hard year.

From a speech to the Moscow Soviet commemorating
the fifth anniversary of the February Revolution, 12th March 1922.

* * *

Today the European bourgeoisie has no certainty as to how events will take shape tomorrow or the day after. It lives from one day to the next. The economic soil is exhausted while the crisis passes from convulsions to a temporary recovery which gives way to new convulsions. International relations are shaky. Yesterday’s allies and the chief ones, Britain and France, more and more oppose each other hostilely on all levels of capitalist relations, and that is why not a single European government is today capable of conducting a policy even to the extent that it could before the last imperialist war, calculated for 15, ten or even five years ahead. All the bourgeois governments live by the impulses of the given moment; they try to plug up and patch up the most crying contradictions, but that is all. And so – from contradiction to contradiction, from conflict to conflict and moving on from one diplomatic resort to another, they attempt to put off the most acute question. Hence their diplomatic impotence, akin to their previous military impotence. They have mighty armies – and yet they cannot smash us. They have a diplomacy with age-old experience – and yet they are incapable of carrying through to the end with us a single piece of business.

We talk about our retreats. Of course we have retreated a great deal, but compare our diplomatic platform in February and April of 1919 (I have just read it out to you) with the platform which we came to Genoa with and left there with. At Genoa we said: “Russia will not give herself up, nor sell herself off, Russia is not capitulating to the ultimatum of European world imperialism.” And what then? A short time afterwards there turns to us Urquhart [9], a representative of the leading lights of the stock exchange of Great Britain, a representative of enterprises worth billions in different parts of the world (he used to own many undertakings both in the Urals and in Siberia), and signs a preliminary conditional agreement with Comrade Krasin [10] for a period of 99 years. A long period! I think that few of the youngest comrades here now will see the end of this period.

You might say: if the bourgeoisie is at present unable to look even five or ten years ahead, how is it that Urquhart is looking 99 years ahead? Herein lies the fact that the bourgeoisie, ruling as a class, as a state, must have a plan – who to conclude an alliance with, who is the greater and who the lesser enemy, and it has to foresee how relations will shape in five, ten or 15 years’ time. But Urquhart is acting as an individual proprietor and nothing more and his calculations are very simple and very correct in their simplicity. He says: “If we, the Urquharts, i.e. capital, hold on in Britain, in France and throughout the world then sooner or later we shall stifle Soviet Russia.” And he is right. But if – reasons Urquhart – we capitalists are overthrown both in Britain and in France we shall of course lose our property in the Urals and Siberia too, but the man who loses his head is not going to weep over his hairs; if capital is to be expropriated throughout the world then of course Mr. Urquhart’s concession will expire in a shorter period than 99 years. That is why his reckoning is entirely realistic and entirely correct. I do not know whether Comrade Krasin said this to him: “As long as you are a force throughout the world we will not of course expropriate you individually. But if the British worker expropriates you and takes your property into his hands then somehow or other we will come to an agreement with the British worker about this concession.” [Laughter] But you will say that nevertheless the Soviet government has renounced this agreement.

Yes, it has unconditionally. Britain’s policy does not provide a minimal guarantee for concluding a responsible and major agreement of a type which presupposes the possibility of normal relations between countries. Britain seeks to prevent Turkey establishing an opportunity for her existence within the natural frontiers of the Turkish state. Britain is in effect waging a war against France: Britain acts under the pseudonym of Greece while France in fact provides support for Turkey. The war has brought victory to Turkey with whom we have complete sympathy, for Turkey was fighting for her independence while Greece was carrying out Great Britain’s rapacious imperialist plans.

There arose the question of the Black Sea and the Straits. On the Black Sea exist states which form part of our federation, in addition Turkey, Bulgaria and Rumania. Yet Britain wants to settle the question of the Black Sea jointly with France and Italy but without the participation of the countries for whom the Black Sea forms an internal sea and its shores the doorstep of their house. In these conditions, where Britain tramples on the elementary rights and interests of the peoples of our federation, the Soviet government did not consider it possible to sign an agreement with a British citizen: fulfilling an agreement, let me repeat, presupposes a minimum of loyal relations between countries and governments.

From a speech to the 5th All-Russian Congress of
the Russian Communist League of Youth, 11th October 1922
(The Position of the Republic and the Tasks of Young Workers)

* * *

So far as concessions are concerned today, Comrade Lenin has here remarked: “Discussions are plentiful, concessions are scarce.” [Laughter] How to explain this? Precisely by the fact that there is not and there will not be any capitulation to capitalism on our part. To be sure, those who favour the resumption of relations with Soviet Russia have more than once contended and written that world capitalism, in the throes of its greatest crisis, is in need of Soviet Russia; Britain needs an outlet for her goods in Russia, Germany needs Russian grain, and so forth and so on. This seems perfectly true, if one surveys the world through pacifist spectacles, that is, from the standpoint of “plain horse sense” which is invariably quite pacifist. [Laughter] And that is why it is invariably bamboozled. One would then imagine that the British capitalist s would try with might and main to invest their funds in Russia; one would then imagine that the French bourgeoisie would orient German technology in this same direction so as to create new sources whereby German reparations could be paid. But we see nothing of the sort. Why not? Because we are living in an epoch when the capitalist equilibrium has been completely upset; because we live in an epoch when economic, political and military crises instantly criss-cross; an epoch of instability, uncertainty and unremitting alarm. This militates against the bourgeoisie conducting any long range policy, because such a policy immediately becomes transformed into an equation with too many unknowns. We finally succeeded in concluding a trade agreement with Britain. But this happened a year and half ago; in reality, all our transactions with Britain are still on a cash-and-carry basis; we pay with gold; and the question of concessions is still in the phase of discussion.

If the European bourgeoisie and above all the British bourgeoisie believed that large-scale collaboration with Russia would bring about immediately a serious improvement in Europe’s economic situation, then Lloyd George and Co. would undoubtedly have brought matters in Genoa to a different conclusion. But they are aware that collaboration with Russia cannot immediately bring any major and drastic changes. The Russian market will not eliminate British unemployment within a few weeks or even months. Russia can be integrated only gradually, as a constantly increasing factor, into Europe’s and the world’s economic life. Because of her vast extent, her natural resources, her large population and especially because of the stimulus imparted by her Revolution, Russia can become the most important economic force in Europe and in the world, but not instantaneously, not overnight, but only over a period of years. Russia could become a major buyer and supplier provided she were given credits today and, consequently, enabled to accelerate her economic growth. Within five or ten years she could become a major market for Britain. But in the latter event, the British government would have to believe that it could last ten years and that British capitalism would be strong enough ten years hence to retain the Russian market. In other words, a policy of genuine economic collaboration with Russia can only be a policy based on very broad foundations. But the whole point is that the post-war bourgeoisie is no longer capable of conducting long-range policies. It doesn’t know what the next day will bring and, still less, what will happen on the day after tomorrow. This is one of the symptoms of the bourgeoisie’s historical demise.

To be sure, this seems to be in contradiction with Leslie Urquhart’s attempt to conclude an agreement with us for not less than 99 years. But this contradiction is truly only an apparent one. Urquhart’s motivation is quite simple and, in its own way, unassailable; should capitalism survive in Britain and throughout the world for the next 99 years then Urquhart will keep his concessions in Russia, too! But what if the proletarian revolution erupts not 99 years or even 9 years from now but much earlier? What then? In that case, naturally, Russia would be the last place where the expropriated proprietors of the world could retain their property. But a man who is about to lose his head, has little cause to shed tears over his mop of hair.

From the report to the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International on
The New Economic Policy and the Perspectives for World Revolution, 14th November 1922.

* * *

Take a look at Britain. The conservative wing of capital is triumphant there. Having suppressed Ireland and stained her with blood while pursuing her age-old oppression in India, Britain is at this moment in Lausanne, attempting for a second time to bend and bring our friend Turkey to her knees. [11] Under the pretext of a bogus freedom of the seas, Britain is demanding access to the shores of the Black Sea so as to keep them under the threat of her long-range artillery. What is more, Britain is busy fishing off our shores but depicts our attempt to protect our country’s vital economic interests as an assault on her interests. If that were not enough, Britain is also attempting to interfere in our internal life. She has the audacity to dictate to us on whom we should pass judgement and whom we should pardon. But let us who are gathered here on this May Day with our ranks closed say to everyone: hands off! we workers and peasants, and working and peasant women, are the masters here and we well know on whom to pass judgement and whom to pardon.

From a speech at the Red Square Parade, Moscow, 1st May 1923.

* * *

At the Hague, several weeks after Genoa, respect towards our diplomacy had already diminished somewhat. [12] After Genoa (which as you remember finished with nothing) our international situation (I am speaking all the while about the official situation, that is, about relations with bourgeois governments) began increasingly to deteriorate. Lord Curzon was by this time already counting on a new period of economic growth in Britain and throughout the world. By the laws of natural development, an economic crisis is usually succeeded by economic growth. At present economic advance in Europe has by no means reached pre-war levels, but the number of unemployed in Britain has nevertheless dropped sharply. In France it had not been great in the first place, while in America after an enormous crisis we can observe a general boom. During the past year very many major American trusts have on their own initiative raised wages so as to paralyse any strike movement in advance.

You will probably ask how our gracious correspondence with Lord Curzon will end. [13] Comrades, I must admit in all conscience that I do not know and I am greatly afraid that at this moment Lord Curzon does not know either. He began at a time when, as I have said, it seemed that one push would be enough to bring us down. Seven weeks passed and nothing came down. He gave us a ten-day time limit then he added a few more days until Wednesday and finally by the Wednesday on the 13th or 14th day he wrote a new note, and in this latter note he asked us to reply as soon as possible and once and for all, but this time he did not set a time limit. It is to be hoped that our diplomacy will not abuse the patience of the very good Lord Curzon and reply at the first opportunity. But what will Lord Curzon answer to that? He was a minister in the Bonar Law government and the attempts to topple the Soviet government began under Bonar Law, but Bonar Law himself toppled first: between the two notes a change of government took place. It is said that the new one has a more conciliatory attitude towards us – I cannot take any responsibility for this report – that is what they say. [14] So that the situation is that we are, as it were, sitting in a lottery and the number to be drawn is unknown: this best typifies the international situation and diplomatic activity and also the policy of the bourgeoisie, for it can pursue no consistent line and cannot predict the next day as it does not follow logically from the present. If we presume the worst, then a break in relations would of course be a serious blow to us, yet a blow we could survive.

From a report to the Moscow Provincial Congress of Metalworkers, 5th June 1923

* * *

The ultimatum of ten days (by Lord Curzon’s calendar) is an ultimatum which was presented on 8th May: today is the 16th of June, I believe; that is, the same amount of time has passed that the flood lasted according to the Bible, and the matter has still not been finally settled.

What, however, is the explanation for this ultimatum – which is a little imprecise with its time-limits – and what explains the great compliance shown by us in our reply to this ultimatum?

Here is has to be said clearly and distinctly: Britain, and, of course, I am speaking of ruling, bourgeois Britain, is remaining true to her traditional policy in this ultimatum. She regards her present struggle against us as in a certain sense the continuation of an overall struggle against Russia as a whole.

But what forms the fundamental line of British policy today? One should not forget that leading Great Britain is the most experienced bourgeoisie. Not that every one of its Curzons is a Solomon – that cannot be said at all – but all the Curzons have together accumulated over the centuries the collective wisdom, the collective experience and the collective treachery of the British ruling classes. The essence of Britain’s policy has always consisted of setting one stronger state against another weaker one and then staying on one side, and offering up prayers to the Lord of imperialism. This has been Britain’s traditional policy over a period of centuries.

Britain was likewise deeply hostile to Tsarist Russia. Britain is an ocean of water while Russia is an ocean of land which joins Europe to Asia. Britain strove to encircle every continent with the necklace of its ocean, but in Asia she always came into conflict with the rapacious imperialist ambitions of Russian Tsarism. During the Crimean War in 1855 Britain rallied to the side of Russia’s enemies. During the Russo-Turkish War in 1878 Britain was again on the side of Russia’s enemies. During the Russo-Japanese War Britain was on Japan’s side. Only in 1907 after the first Russian revolution did Britain’s policy change. Considering Russia to have been sufficiently weakened by her unsuccessful war with Japan, by the revolution and by internal disorder and so on, Britain concluded the Anglo-Russian agreement on the Persian question which formed the prelude to an Anglo-Russian alliance.

On the eve of the imperialist war Britain hesitated, comrades, when the British proletariat opens all the steel archives of British diplomacy (if those sly devils don’t destroy them) it will find conclusive proof that Great Britain wanted the imperialist war more than all the other states. If on 1st August Britain had said that she would go to war then neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary would have been dragged into the war but would have given way. If Britain had said that she would not go to war then neither Russia nor France would have begun to fight but would have come to an agreement. On the eve of the war Britain took a provocative stance and thus brought the war down on to the European continent. The same thing in relation to the Ruhr. [15] If Britain had not wanted France to get bogged down in the Ruhr thereby weakening herself and exhausting Germany, then there would not have been a Ruhr story. Britain provoked it, Britain wanted it and now she stands on the side and watches, awaiting the moment for her intervention. Remaining aside and having the fire banked with the hands of others, that is the essence of the policy of the British bourgeoisie, the most treacherous in the world.

Remember the policy of Britain during the period of the interventions and blockades. All these facts are so fresh in our memories that I shall not enumerate them, although I will not conceal from you that as soon as I received the ultimatum, I instructed our war department here to compile a short list of what official Britain did to us during the first three years of interventions and blockades. In particular let me recall that during the imperialist war Russia lost 3,080,000 men but Britain lost 455,000: that is, six times less than Russia. In order that Lord Curzon might at the present moment consider himself powerful enough to present us with a ten-day ultimatum, the blood of over three million Russian workers and peasants had to be spilt for the glory of British imperialism. We shall present this account one day to the British bourgeoisie. After Britain’s victory had been assured by the death of over three million Russian peasants and workers, Britain inaugurated an era of interventions and blockades. The same policy both on a large and a small scale. Britain was not at war with us, but she did have her expeditionary units at Archangel and Murmansk. For what purpose? To mobilize Russian peasants and workers there in support of the White Guards, and to force them to fight the Red peasants and workers. In the North, in the Archangel-Murmansk region during the occupation Britain lost no more than ten to fifteen men, but she shot hundreds. British counter-intelligence there had its own favourite method: those whom it had any suspicion of being unsympathetic to the Russian bourgeoisie it simply dropped through the ice.

Now Britain is demanding compensation from us for two British citizens – a male and a female. They were occupied here on the most innocent matters: engaging in espionage, helping to blow up railways, assassinate Soviet public figures and so on. One of them suffered for it – he was shot (but this is a spy’s occupational hazard) while the other was put in prison. Now we have to pay out 30,000 [roubles] in gold for the lady and 70,000 as a pension to the dependents of the worthy gentleman. We must acknowledge Lord Curzon’s extreme moderation, for he is not demanding pensions in the case of the fifteen or thirty British who died in our north.

Two words about Britain’s role in the Caucasus. We still remember the story of the shooting down at a remote station of the 26 Bolsheviks who had been brought from Baku (they have gone down in history as the 26 Baku Commissars [16]): this was carried out in accordance with the instructions of the British officer Teague-Jones [17] and with the agreement of the British General Thompson. One day we shall demand pensions and damages for our 26 Baku comrades, of whom Comrade Shaumyan was an old revolutionary and a member of the Central Committee of our party.

There you have a schematic picture of Great Britain’s role in the imperialist and civil wars. Then a turn followed and we had a trade agreement with them. Why? Under the pressure of a most severe crisis and the search for a solution to it. Three million unemployed put a colossal burden on the British budget and Lloyd George had hoped first to aid the unemployed, and secondly to be the first to go into Russia and reorganize her with the aid of British capital; that is, economically shackle her and convert her into a colony. About two years of this trading policy have passed. What have they revealed? Above all that, economically speaking, we are developing more slowly than the impatient profiteers of the City would have liked and not along the line they had imagined. They had reckoned that the NEP was a capitulation by the Russian proletariat in the field of economic construction, but in actual fact it was not. On the other hand Britain’s economic situation has improved and Anglo-Russian economic relations are at the present moment not such a major factor in Great Britain’s general balance of trade ...

Nor have the Conservatives in Britain been elected for all time the Labour Party, that is British Menshevism, the British Liberals, and the Independents, in short everything needed to produce a British Kerenskyism or Milyukovism, all this has to replace the Conservatives whose right wing is formed by Lord Curzon’s group. This will be in a year or two. There can be no doubt that a victory of the Left Bloc [18] in France will automatically bring about a strengthening of the reformist, Menshevik position in Britain.

In the year that remains before such changes, the extreme Conservative wing of the bourgeoisie will make an attempt to exploit a fascist war against Soviet Russia, which even today presents of course a fundamental danger in the eyes of the world bourgeoisie – and especially that of Britain. What did Lord Curzon’s task consist of when he presented us with an ultimatum? He hoped that in reply we would make a move which could be interpreted as a slap in the eye for the British government, and which would offend the public opinion of all the British philistines and narrow-minded petty-bourgeois., including both the philistines and the narrow-minded people of the British Labour Party – and their proportion is said to be pretty high. But we spotted this artless trap.

We had to force the philistines to understand how we saw things here and because their skulls are made of a material which takes a long time to penetrate, the ten-day time limit which Lord Curzon gave us was insufficient. That, comrades, is the explanation of our policy. Our job was to say: Lord Curzon is displaying magnanimity but we will display even more magnanimity; Lord Curzon is peaceably disposed but we are disposed even more peaceably; he does not want war but we trebly do not want it. That is the meaning of our reply.

Thus we engaged in diplomatic preparation, explained our position and managed to hammer something into them. The first formal result lies in the fact there will apparently be no rupture of relations; but I regard this result as minor because, given the nature of Lord Curzon – and his nature merely reflects the nature of the ruling groups of the British bourgeoisie – there can be no stability in our relations with Great Britain. judge for yourself: during the intervention we shot a British spy and forgot about it long ago. The trade agreement was signed after this. Now they declare to us: pay up the cash or we shall break off trade relations with you. Well, comrades, this is monstrous evidence of the fact that this clever, experienced British bourgeoisie has bad nerves, threatening us now with every kind of extortion and demand: it will go on doing so in the future. Therefore the current situation for us does not contain any great guarantees as regards stability.

The caution which we manifested on this question had good educational effects. It thwarted the schemes of the bourgeoisie for the present. But in no event can we have a complete peace, primarily because, as I have said, there remains an unstable situation in Europe and moreover a gigantic revolutionary process in the East which worries Britain particularly.

Of course the main point of the ultimatum was, in Curzon’s own definition, the so-called propaganda in the East. Curzon’s demand for ending propaganda in the East is, according to analyses by the more perceptive bourgeois journalists, an empty demand by its very nature, for it is not a question of this or that Soviet citizen turning up there or even occupying an official position and in this or that statement violating Britain’s right to exploit and plunder the peoples of the East, but of our country, as long as it behaves correctly on the national question, presenting the greatest mortal threat to any colonial might and especially the British.

There’s why Britain most of all is disturbed by the resolutions of our 12th Party Congress on the national question. We developed and refined our national policy and are adopting serious measures to implement all aspects of it and especially in such countries of the Soviet Union as Turkestan and Azerbaijan where it has a great demonstrative importance for the East ...

From a report to the 6th All-Russian Congress of Metalworkers, 16th June 1923

* * *

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

Comrades, you will remember the contents of the ultimatum and you will remember that the history dragged on not for ten days but 41 or 42 days, and you will remember than on some very substantial points we gave way but on some other likewise very substantial ones we did not give way. In order to draw a balance, let us recall what exactly we conceded to Lord Curzon. In the first place we withdrew Comrade Weinstein’s [19] letter which had not been written quite in total accordance with the textbook of etiquette. Secondly, on the question of fishing in the three or twelve-mile limit, we paid a due of respect to the long-range naval artillery of Great Britain and recognized her right to catch fish in the murky water beyond the three-mile limit. We paid out 100,000 roubles cash down. On the question of propaganda, we undertook with a clear conscience to do against Britain nothing worse than what she might do against us on the principle of the complete equality of the parties and I have no doubt, and nor will you, that our word is firm – we may not answer for Tsarist treaties but we fulfil our own in earnest.

On the question of recalling our two representatives, Comrade Raskolnikov from Afghanistan and Comrade Shumyatsky from Persia [20], we answered with a refusal. In his last note, or memorandum, Lord Curzon portrays matters as though we would still recall Raskolnikov for reasons of internal business or something of that nature. This was an obscure passage. Anyway we have not given anyone any commitments to this effect: if it is a matter of internal business it is of concern only to the Soviet government and no one else. As regards Shumyatsky, Lord Curzon proposed to leave him in Persia after having given him a severe reprimand. We accept this on the condition that a similar reprimand be given to the representative of Great Britain over there, and I can assure you, comrades, that he does need a little reprimanding.

That is the formal balance. On some substantial points we gave way, without any joy on our part, and on others we refused and the agreement was preserved. But if you try to draw up not a formal, diplomatic balance but a political balance, and ask yourself. as a result of this attempt to seize us by the throat with a ten-day ultimatum, did we become weaker or stronger? then I believe, comrades, that without bragging we can say we have become stronger. Not because we showed any finesse or diplomatic wisdom, but simply because the ten-day ultimatum not only failed to produce a capitulation from our side but turned into just over 40 days of negotiations which led to concessions, and it all boiled down to a rotten compromise between mighty Great Britain and the Soviet Union ...

The British and French bourgoisies are today ruling through their extreme right wing, but they feel it necessary to re-form and reconstruct themselves. In France, a shift towards the Left Bloc and in Britain to the Labour Party would almost inevitably signify recognition of the Soviet Union, and consequently the liquidation of our revolution recedes into the misty distance. But if this is so, the Fascists and Fochists (after our friend, General Foch [21]), i.e. two parties which have identical feelings towards us, will argue: why, in the period still remaining, while imperialism has not yet spent all its energies (in Italy the Fascists have just triumphed and a coup has taken place in Bulgaria), why can’t we have a go at overthrowing Soviet Russia?

There, comrades, is the basic reason for Lord Curzon’s attempt to put us on our knees (and if possible to lay us out on the floor) by his ultimatum. We know of course that today Lord Curzon cannot send a single expeditionary corps or a single British regiment to Archangel, the Murmansk or Odessa. Such an act would provoke the deepest indignation of the proletarian masses in Britain, and the Labour Party on coming to power would be forced to respond to such indignation. Lord Curzon was banking on his ultimatum inciting some other country against us. He was counting on our close neighbours. Let us name them: Rumania and Poland ...

That, comrades, is what explains the Curzon ultimatum and the failure of the ultimatum. But if we digress from diplomacy – from the withdrawal of the letters, and from the 100,000 pieces of silver, which is after all a sum which even our modest budget can manage somehow – if we digress and weigh up the political result then you get this picture: the most powerful imperialist state in Europe had tolerated us, but finally presented us with an ultimatum hoping thereby to bring matters to a decisive conclusion. During the course of this ultimatum the government in Britain changed, while even within the government there was a conflict over it. The business dragged on and ended up with us paying 100,000 roubles for two agents and we forwent what in the language of bourgeois diplomacy is called “prestige”, but as our concept of prestige does not quite coincide with Lord Curzon’s we set a different price on this imponderable quantity. We have become stronger and more powerful and this is emphasized most sharply by the fact that we have undertaken 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 linked with Great Britain, agreed to negotiations in the very same period as the Curzon ultimatum ...

From a speech to party, trade union, Young Communist and other organizations
of the Krasnaya Presnya district (Moscow), 25th June 1923.

Volume 1, Chapter 2 Index


1. The principal Black Sea port of Georgia which was occupied by a British force from November 1918 to June 1920, during which time Britain had sought to lease it on a long-term basis from Georgia. The British had withdrawn from the rest of Transcaucasia (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) by the end of 1919 and Soviet power was established in Baku and Azerbaijan in April 1920, Armenia in November 1920 and in Georgia in February 192l.

2. Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel (1878-1928), Tsarist officer, commander of pro-monarchist White forces in southern Russia during the later stages of the Civil War.

3. Curzon, George Nathaniel (Lord Curzon) (1859-1925) – Aristocrat educated at Eton and Oxford. Viceroy of India 1898-1905; strengthened the apparatus of colonial rule, partitioning Bengal and fortifying the North-West Frontier against a threat from Tsarist Russian imperialism. Became an earl in 1911, joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in 1916; Foreign Secretary first under Lloyd George in 1919 and then under Bonar Law and Baldwin, 1922-24. A leader of the right wing of the Conservative Party in this period, he combined traditional hostility to Tsarist Russia with his class loyalty to act as an arch-enemy of Soviet Russia, against which he carried out endless diplomatic manoeuvres.

4. Elefthérios Venizélos (1864-1936), Greek Prime Minister, 1910-1915, 1917-1920and 1928-1932; leader of the pro-Entente and anti-German section of the Greek bourgeoisie, who led Greece into the First World War in 1917, having already set up a rival government and forced the King to abdicate.

5. The famine struck in the spring of 1921 as a result of two successive years of drought, aggravated by the devastation wrought by the Civil War. It centred on the important grain-producing Volga region, and inflicted hardship and starvation on some twenty million peasants and workers, as well as severely disrupting the economy.

6. David Lloyd George (1863-1945), Welsh Liberal politician, responsible as Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) for the introduction of old age pensions, unemployment benefit and sickness benefits; prime minister from 1916 to 1922.

7. The Anglo-Soviet Trade Agreement had been signed on 16th March 1921 by Krasin and Horne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It established official commercial relations between the two countries for the first time.

8. Pavel Nikolayevich Milyukov (1858-1943), historian and liberal politician in pre-revolutionary Russia; foun der of the Consatitutional Democratic (Kadet) Party; member of first Provisional government in 1917; forced by mass movement to resign; after the October he supported and advised the counter-revolutionary White forces during the Civil War and then went into exile in Paris, where he edited an anti-Soviet Russian-language paper. – Vladimir Lvovich Burtsev (1862-1942), Russian revolutionary and journalist; member of Narodnaya Volya in the 1880s; after sescaping from Siberia he went into nexiole ion western Europe, where he was involved with publishing various anti-Tsarist papers and magazines; famous for exposing Tsarist agents provocateurswithin the revpolutionary movement; opposed the Bolsheviks in 1917; briefly arrested but allowed to go into exile in 1918 after an intervention by Maxim Gorky; during the Civil War he supported Kolchak and Denikin. – Yekaterina Dmitriyevna Kuskova (1869-1958), author of the Credo, a manifesto of the revisionist current in the Russian Marxist movement known as Economism; opponent of the Bolsheviks; deported from Russia in 1922.

9. Leslie Urquhart (1874-1933), British businessman with extensive interests in the Russian oil and mining industry; expropriated by the Bolsheviks he threw his weight behing#d British efforts to overthrow the revolutionary government; when this failed, he reached a compromise with the Soviet government.

10. Leonid Borisovich Krasin (1870-1926), Russian revolutionary and Soviet diplomat; joined RSDLP in 1890s, supported the bolsheviks in thge 1903 split; withdrew from politics during the years of reaction after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution; rejoined the Bolsheviks after the February Revolution; People’s Commissar for Foreign Trade 1920-24; died in London in 1926 while negotiating diplomatic recognition of the Soviet government with Britain and France.

11. The Turkish Provisional Government, established at Ankara in 1920 under the leadership of Mustapha Kemal (1881-1938), refused to accept the Sevres peace treaty between Ottoman Turkey and the Entente, and negotiated the less harsh Lausanne Treaty of July 1923 which allowed Kemal’s Turkish Republic to retain Eastern Thrace (European Turkey), Izmir and Armenia, which were to be surrendered under the terms of Sevres. Nevertheless Britain still secured the “demilitarization” of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles as stipulated by the Sevres Treaty.

12. The Hague Conference continued the work of the Genoa Conference.

13. On 8th May 1923 the British Foreign Secretary, Curzon, sent an ultimatum to the Soviet government threatening to break off economic and diplomatic relations unless the Soviet Union relinquished its twelve-mile fishing limit, ceased anti-imperialist propaganda in Persia, Afghanistan and India and paid compensation for two British agents captured in Russia sometime previously.

14. Bonar Law had resigned through ill-health on 20th May 1923, and was succeeded by Baldwin rather than Curzon who led the extreme right anti-Soviet wing of the Conservative Party.

15. On 11th January 1923 French and Belgian troops marched into Germany’s Ruhr industrial region when the latter failed to maintain her reparation payments to France. No other Entente country supported this action.

16. This is a reference to 26 leaders of the Baku Commune executed without trial by the British occupation forces on 20 September 1918. – Stepan Shaumyan (1878-1918), Armenian Bolshevik, member of the Bolshevik Central Committee, leader of the Baku Commune until July 1918; captured by the British occupation forces in Krasnovodsk in September 1918 and executed without trial.

17. Reginald Teague-Jones (1889-1988), British intelligence officer accused of ordering the execution of the 26 Baku Bolsheviks.

18. The Left Bloc or Cartel des Gauches was an electoral alliance between the French Radical Socialists (liberals) under Herriot and the Socialists under Blum. It came to power at the 1924 elections and formed a coalition government.

19. Gregory Weinstein (1880-?), Russian journalist active in the American socialist mnovement; editor of Novy Mir in New York until 1919; General Office Manager of the Russian Soviet Government Bureau in the US from April 1919; deported from the US in 1921; as head of the Foreign Commissariat’s Anglo-American section he formulated a rather undiplomatic reply to a British protest note in 1923, which prompted Curzon to issue the so-called “Curzon ultimatum”.

20. Fedor Raskolnikov (1892-1939), Russian revolutionary, joined the Bolsheviks in 1910; leader of the Kronstadt sailors in 1917; commander of the Red Fleet on the Caspian and the Baltic during the civil War; Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan 1921-23, withdrawn under British pressure; from 1930-38 active in diplomatic service as ambassador, ordered to return to the USSR in 1938, he refused and issued his Open Letter to Stalkin in 1939; shortly he died after a fall from a window – according to the historian Roy Medvedev he was assassinated by NKVD agents. – Boris Shumyatsky (1886-1938), Russian revolutionary activew since 1903; represented Soviet interests in Iran 1923-25; after that he ran the Communist University of the Toilers of the East; appointed head of the Soviet film industry by Stalin in 1930; arrested in 1938 for collaborating with saboteurs in the film industry and executed by firing squad.

21. Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929), French general; as supreme commander of the Allied armies in 1918 he accepted the German surrender; highly critical of the Versailles Treaty for being too lenient on Germany; advised the Polish army during its invasion of Russia in 1920.

Volume 1 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 2.7.2007