Leon Trotsky On
Excerpts from his writings

The Decline Of British Imperialism: Part III

The Soviet-Polish war (cont’d)

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To all workers, peasants and all honest citizens of Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine:
On the 11th July the British government approached us with a proposal for ending the war with Poland and sending our representatives to London for peace talks with Poland and other border states. In addition Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary, reported that in the event of an armistice being concluded the Polish forces will retreat to the frontier which was laid down for Poland at the peace conference in December of last year. In the same note it proposed that we do not touch Wrangel in his Crimean ‘sanctuary’.

To this offer of mediation by the British government we, the Council of People’s Commissars, replied in the negative. And in explaining this action of ours to the Russian and Ukrainian peoples may we express our firm conviction that our words will also reach the Polish people.

The People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs has issued a ‘Red Book’ in Russian and foreign languages on Russo-Polish relations, where specific documents reveal day by day on the one hand the energetic, sincere and honest efforts of Soviet power to secure peace with Poland even at the price of big concessions, and on the other the stubborn, malicious and predatory ambitions of bourgeois-landlord Poland to inflict at the Entente’s instigation a mortal blow on Soviet Russia. If Britain had not wanted the war she could easily have prevented it. It would have been sufficient to refuse Poland war supplies and money. But Britain wanted the war. While holding talks with us in order to lull the working masses, she was at the same time continuously sending war material to Pilsudski and Wrangel against the Russian workers and peasants. Britain caused the Polish War and Britain is responsible for it.

Lord Curzon refers to the League of Nations on whose behalf he is presenting his proposal. But Poland, who has launched a campaign of robbery and plunder against us, is a member of this League of Nations. Another member of that League of Nations is rapacious imperial Japan, which is currently conducting monstrous outrages in the Far Eastern Republic under the cover of her allies. If the task of the League of Nations was to assist the cause of peace then it ought to have prevented Poland from starting the war, and demanded that Japan evacuate Eastern Siberia. But there was none of that. All the members of the League of Nations, and especially France, Britain and America, are linked by a collective guarantee in the matter of provoking a war by Poland against the Ukraine and Russia. The most powerful League of Nations members have been and are helping Poland as much as they can. They did not even reply to us when we approached them in April with an appeal to restrain the hand of the Pilsudski government which was already poised to strike. Yet now, when cruel blows have been dealt to the White Guard Polish forces by the Red Army, the League of Nations which is responsible for this comes forward with an olive branch in its hands — or rather, Britain, under the cover of the League over which she rules, offers us her mediation in reconciling us with Poland and the other border states and invites us to send peace delegates for this purpose to London: the very centre where all the snares are set against the Soviet Republic and from where the order was given to Poland to launch her offensive against the Ukraine and Russia.

No, Britain has not been called upon to act as intermediary and peacemaker in the bloody struggle which her criminal bourgeoisie conceived and feeds.

But the British government as we have seen already does not confine itself to the question of Poland. Lord Curzon in his same note of 11th July proposes to us nothing more or less than ending the war with Baron Wrangel if, in exchange, he promises to withdraw his bands south of the isthmus in order to establish himself within the limits of the Crimean peninsula which Britain has placed at his disposal. just a few days ago the same Lord Curzon stated on behalf of the British government that the pre-condition for commercial relations was the mutual obligation of Russia and Great Britain to non-interference in each others’ internal affairs; but hardly had the British government time to acknowledge the receipt of Soviet Russia’s agreement to this condition than Lord Curzon considered himself called upon not only to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs, but also to donate a part of federal Soviet territory to private bandits acting in the service of British imperialism.

It is not the first time that the British government has manifested an interest in Baron Wrangel in the Crimea. When the Red forces which had routed Denikin were preparing to step over the Crimean threshold in order to mop up Wrangel’s remnants of Denikin’s army, Lord Curzon came forward with the same olive branch in hand and offered us the complete capitulation of Wrangel and his forces on condition of an amnesty. We agreed, and upon the insistence of the British government we halted the offensive immediately. Whereupon Lord Curzon at once changed the conditions and began to talk, instead of Wrangel’s capitulation, of our non-incursion over the boundaries of the Crimea. At the same time the War and Naval departments of Great Britain were vigorously working to arm and supply Wrangel’s forces. The outcome of this co-ordinated collaboration of Curzon, Churchill and Wrangel was a new offensive by the White Guard forces northwards from the Crimea at the beginning of June. It was quite evident that the offensive by Baron Wrangel, for whom Lord Curzon had previously requested the amnesty, was mapped and planned to supplement White Guard Poland’s offensive and consequently was dictated from the same London centre. Yet now the British Foreign Secretary again proposes that we abandon the offensive action against Wrangel, and prepares to set up his hireling on Russian territory just as if nothing had happened before.

No, neither Lord Curzon, the British government as a whole nor the League of Nations which it commands are called upon to interfere in the internal affairs of the Russian Soviet Federation and to act as peacemakers over a civil war which they themselves have caused and inflamed.

All the previous work of the British government, its allies and helpmates bear witness to the fact that their mediation pursues at the present time a single goal: to save Pilsudski and Wrangel, whom they had set against us, from their deserved rout, and to gain for them an opportunity to recover, re-form, re-equip and re-arm, and to commence a fresh campaign against workers’ and peasants’ Russia .

We have rejected League of Nations mediation in our war against White Poland and her accomplice Wrangel. But this does not of course mean that we are refusing to continue our negotiations with Britain and other countries, whether members of the League of Nations or not. Our policy of peace remains unaltered. While turning down Lord Curzon’s mediation, we are ready at any moment to enter into trading relations with British industrialists and merchants as well as with the capitalists of other countries. In justification of his policy, Lloyd George recently explained to the House of Commons that in Africa Britain had frequently to trade with cannibals. On this question we have common ground with Lloyd George and his government, inasmuch as we consider that until Europe and America become communist Soviet Russia must, in the interests of economic development, enter into trading relations with capitalist cannibals. We merely deny them the right to come forward as the saviours of small nations and the peacemakers of civil war. We know them too well to trust them. Let us warn the toiling masses of France, Britain, Poland and all countries against trusting the incorrigibly greedy, incurably base and indefatigably criminal bourgeois governments. . .

an appeal issued by the Council of People’s Commissars, first published in Prevda and Izvestia 21st July 1920.

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According to all the information we have from various sources, Great Britain has possibly not since the age of Chartism lived through such a period of working-class re-awakening of interests and strivings to action as she does now in connection with the Russo-Polish War and the Russo-Polish peace negotiations. For the notes that are sent us by British diplomacy form but a reflection, a caricatured shadow, a faint image of the profound events and realities which are now taking place in British life. This is first and foremost the influence of the British working class. However much Lloyd George and Curzon might chatter, had there not been a congress in London to which two thousand delegates from throughout the country had come, not a letter of our replies would have been read. 1

Given such a serious factor as the will of the awakening British working class, we can say that our diplomatic work has now a great point of support in Great Britain. Some reports say that in France also, where the situation is less promising as regards the state of the labour movement, an upsurge is observable and that the federation of metalworkers’ and masons’ unions has already backed the British Council of Action and has proclaimed the necessity for a general strike should France not go to the peace talks. Thus our diplomatic position, which is a result of our military position, has improved because our Red forces stand twelve miles from Warsaw. It is for this reason that Comrade Kamenev’s2 and Comrade Krasin’s3 work in London has turned out so favourably.

From a report to the Moscow Soviet, 17th August 1920 (On the Wrangel Front).

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Of all the villainies of world imperialism whose full measure has been displayed over recent years, Poland’s invasion of our country is still a fact which is exceptional in its enormity.

It is essential that every Russian peasant man and woman knows of all the steps which we have undertaken to avoid the war (report the basic facts). France’s role:

1. Her publication of a telegram in March of a purported offensive by us against Poland.
2. The stubborn repetition of these lies until the present time. Britain’s conduct:
3. Supplying ammunition to Poland through an agreement concluded last autumn.
4. Bonar Law’s reference in parliament to my letter to French soldiers as grounds for concluding this treaty.
Britain’s conduct in relation to Wrangel: 5. Curzon’s first note in April
6. Our immediate agreement
7. Curzon’s prolonged silence and then threat
8. Alteration of the conditions in the note
9. A fresh pause
10. Proposal to send a mediator
11. We were all the while constrained
12. Wrangel’s blow
13. The responsibility for it lies with Curzon
14. Lloyd George’s statement to Krasin.

The bourgeois press had prepared for Poland’s offensive by means of lies about an offensive by us. By means of false references to a preparation by us for an offensive, Bonar Law deceives public opinion to justify military aid to Poland.

By means of diplomatic mediation, Curzon is assisting Wrangel to concentrate his forces for a thrust against us.

From personal notes on the proletariat and peasantry in the revolution and the Soviet-Polish War, written in 1920 and first published in Works,0 Volume 17 part 2.

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The post-war crisis

Let us pass now to Great Britain, the richest and most powerful country in Europe. During the war we grew accustomed to saying that Britain was getting rich from the war, that the British bourgeoisie had plunged Europe into war and was feathering its nest. This was true, but only within certain limits. Britain made profits in the initial period of the war but began to suffer losses in the second period. The impoverishment of Europe, especially of Central Europe, acted to disrupt trade relations between Britain and the rest of the continent. In the last analysis this had to hurt and did hurt Britain’s industry and finances. Moreover, Britain herself was compelled to shoulder enormous war expenditures. Today Britain is in a state of decline, and this decline is becoming more and more precipitous. This fact may be illustrated by industrial and commercial indices which I shall presently cite, but the fact itself is incontestable and is corroborated by a whole series of public and wholly official declarations by the most eminent British bankers and industrialists. During the months of March, April and May, the respective British publications carried the annual reports of corporations, banks, and so on. These authoritative gatherings, where the leaders of the various enterprises make their reports, assessing the general state of affairs in the country or in their own particular branch of industry, provide exceptionally instructive material. I have gathered a whole file of such reports. All of them bear out one and the same thing: Britain’s national income, i.e., the aggregate income of all her citizens and the state, has dropped considerably below the pre-war total.

Britain is poorer. The productivity of labour has fallen. Her world trade for 1920 has, in comparison to the last year before the war, declined by at least one-third, and in some of the most important branches, even more. Especially sudden is the change undergone by the coal industry which used to be the main branch of British economy, or more precisely, the root and trunk on which Britain’s entire world economic system rested. For the coal monopoly was the root of the power, vigour and prosperity of all other branches of British industry. Not a trace of this monopoly remains today. Here are the basic factual data on the state of British economy. In 1913 Britain’s coal industry supplied 287 million tons of coal; in 1920 — 233 million tons, i.e. 20 per cent less. In 1913, the production of iron amounted to 10.4 million tons; in 1920 — a little more than 8 million tons, i.e., again 20 per cent less. The export of coal in 1913 amounted to 73 million tons; in 1920 — all told only 25 million tons, i.e., one-third of the pre-war total. But during the current year, 1921, the slump in the coal industry and coal exports took on absolutely abnormal proportions. In January the coal output was 19 million tons (i.e. below the 1920 monthly average); in February — 17; in March — 16. And then the general strike erupted and the coat output verged on nil. For the first five months of 1921 the exports are 6 times below what they were for the same period in 1913. Expressed in prices, Britain’s entire export for May of this year is three times below that of May of last year. As of August 1, 1914, Britain’s national. debt was £700 million: on June 4 of this year — £7,709 million, i.e., an elevenfold increase. The budget has swelled threefold.

If you thumb through the reports of the directories of banks and industrial enterprises far March and April you will find that Britain’s national income has declined one-third or one-quarter as against the pre-war period. That is how matters stand in Britain, the richest country in Europe, a country which suffered the least from military operations and gained the most from the war in its initial period.

The most graphic proof of the decline of British economic life lies in the fact that the British pound sterling is no longer a pound sterling; that is, it is no longer equivalent to the set of figures which once exercised their sway everywhere and which are still imprinted on it. Today it is only 76 per cent of what it pretends to be. As against the incumbent sovereign of the money market — the US dollar — the pound has lost 24 per cent of its nominal magnitude. What could better characterize the instability of our epoch than the fact that the most stable, absolute and incontestable thing in the whole world -the British sovereign (in English this word signifies both ‘pound sterling’ and ‘ruler’) — has lost its former position and has become transfigured into a relative magnitude! Considering nowadays in Germany the sphere of philosophy has become activated over relativity — and I refer here to Einstein’s philosophy — one ought perhaps to interpret German philosophy as an act of revenge against British economics, inasmuch as the British pound sterling has finally become — relative. Incidentally, it has always been the custom in Germany to reply to economic poverty by exacting revenge in the field of philosophy.

From the report to the Third World Congress of the Communist International on the world economic crisis and the new tasks of the Third International, 23rd June 1921.

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The growth of France’s influence in Europe, and partly in the world as well, during the past year, is due not to the strengthening of France but to the patent progressive weakening of Britain.

Great Britain has conquered Germany. This was the chief issue settled by the last war. And in essence the war was not a world war but a European war, even though the struggle between the two mightiest European states — Britain and Germany — was resolved with the participation of the forces and resources of the entire world. Britain has conquered Germany. But today, Britain is much weaker in the world market, and generally in the world situation, than she was before the war. The United States has grown at Britain’s expense much more than Britain has at the expense of Germany.

America is battering Britain down, first of all by the more rationalized and more progressive character of its industry. The productivity of an American worker is 150 per cent above the productivity of a British worker. In other words, two American workers produce, thanks to a more perfectly equipped industry, as much as five British workers. This fact alone, established by British statistical researches, testifies that Britain is doomed in a struggle with America; and this alone suffices to push Britain towards a war with America, so long as the British fleet maintains its preponderance on the oceans.

American coal is crowding out British coal throughout the world and even in Europe. Yet, Britain’s world trade has been based primarily on her export of coal. In addition, oil is now of decisive significance for industry and defence; oil not only runs motor cars, tractors, submarines, aeroplanes, but is greatly superior to coal even for the big ocean liners. Up to 70 per cent of the world’s oil is produced within the boundaries of the United States. Consequently, in the event of war all this oil would be in the hands of Washington. In addition America holds in her hands Mexican oil, which supplies up to 12 per cent of the world output. True, Americans are accusing Britain of having cornered, outside the United States borders, up to 90 per cent of the world oil sources and of shutting off the Americans from access to them, while American oil fields face exhaustion within the next few years. But all these geological and statistical computations are quite dubious and arbitrary. They are compiled in order so as to justify American pretensions to the oil of Mexico, Mesopotamia, and so on. But were the danger of exhaustion of American oil fields actually to prove real, it would constitute one more reason for speeding up the war between the United States and Britain.

Europe’s indebtedness to America is a touchy question. The debts on the whole amount to $18 billion. The United States always has the opportunity of creating the greatest difficulties in the British money market by presenting its demands for payment. As is well known, Britain has even proposed that America cancel British debts, promising in turn to cancel Europe’s debt to Britain. Since Britain owes America much more than the continental countries of the Entente owe her, she stands to profit from such a transaction. America has refused. The capitalist Yankees showed no inclination to finance with their own funds Great Britain’s preparations for war with the United States.

The alliance between Britain and Japan, which is fighting America for preponderance on the Asiatic continent, has likewise aggravated in the extreme the relations between the United States and Britain.

But most acute in character, in view of all the indicated circumstances, is the question of the navy, Wilson’s Government, upon running up against Britain’s opposition in world affairs, launched a gigantic programme of naval construction. Harding’s government has taken this programme over from its predecessor and this programme is being rushed through at top speed. By 1924 the US navy will not only be far more powerful than that of Britain, but also superior to the British and Japanese fleets put together, if not in tonnage, then in firing power.

What does this mean from the British point of view? It means that by 1924 Britain must either accept the challenge and try to destroy the military, naval and economic might of the United States by taking advantage of her present superiority, or she must passively become converted into a power of the second or third order, surrendering once and for all domination of the oceans and seas to the United States. Thus the last slaughter of the peoples, which ‘settled’ in its own way the European question, has for this very reason raised in all its scope the world question, namely: Will Britain or the United States rule the world? The preparations for the new world war are proceeding full speed ahead. The expenditures for the army and the navy have grown extraordinarily as compared with pre-war times. The British military budget has increased threefold, the American — three and a half times.

The contradictions between Britain and America are being transformed into a process of automatic proliferation, an automatic approach closer and closer to tomorrow’s sanguinary conflict. Here we actually are dealing with automatism.

the report to the Third World Congress of the Communist International on the world economic crisis and the new tasks of the Communist International, 23rd June 1921.

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Economically, the strongest country and the one least damaged by the war in Europe is Britain. Nevertheless, even with regard to this country one cannot say that capitalist equilibrium has been restored after the war. True, thanks to her world organization and her position as victor, Britain has attained certain commercial and financial successes after the war: she has improved her trade balance and has raised the exchange rate of the pound and has recorded a fictitious surplus in her budget. But in the sphere of industry Britain has since the war moved backwards not forwards. Both the productivity of labour in Britain and her national income are far below the pre-war levels. The situation of the basic branch of her industry, the coal industry, is getting worse and worse, pulling down all other branches of her economy. The incessant paroxysms caused by strikes are not the cause but the consequence of the decline of British economy …

The British Empire is today at the peak of its power. It has retained all its old dominions and has acquired new ones. But it is precisely the present moment that reveals that Britain’s dominant world position stands in contradiction to her actual economic decline. Germany, with her capitalism incomparably more progressive in respect to technology and organization, has been crushed by force of arms. But in the person of the United States, which economically subjected both Americas, there has now arisen a triumphant rival, even more menacing than Germany. Thanks to its superior organization and technology, the productivity of labour in US industry is far above that of Britain. Within the territories of the United States 65-70 per cent of the world’s petroleum is being produced, upon which depends the motor industry, tractor production, the navy and the air force. Britain’s age-old monopoly in the coal market has been completely undermined; America has taken first place; her exports to Europe are increasing ominously. In the field of the merchant navy America has almost caught up with Britain. The United States is no longer content to put up with Britain’s world overseas cable monopoly. In the field of industry Great Britain has gone over to the defensive, and under the pretext of combating ‘unwholesome’ German competition is now arming herself with protectionist measures against the United States. Finally, while Britain’s navy,, comprising a large number of outdated units, has come to a standstill in its development, the Harding administration has taken over from Wilson’s administration the programme of naval construction intended to secure the preponderance of the American flag on the high seas within the next two or three years.

The situation is such that either Britain will be automatically pushed back and, despite her victory over Germany, become a second-rate power or she will be constrained in the near future to stake in mortal combat with the United States her entire power gained in former years.

That is just the reason why Britain is maintaining her alliance with Japan and is making concessions to France in order to secure the latter’s assistance or at least neutrality. The growth of the international role of the latter country — within the confines of the European continent — during the last year has been caused not by a strengthening of France but by the international weakening of Britain.

Germany’s capitulation in May on the question of indemnities signifies, however, a temporary victory for Britain and is the warrant of the further economic disintegration of Central Europe, without at all excluding the occupation of the Ruhr and Upper Silesian basins by France in the immediate future.

the Theses on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Communist International, drafted by Trotsky and adopted by the Third World Congress of the Communist International, 4th July 1921.


1 The Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party held a special conference on 9th August which called for the whole industrial power of the working class to be used in the event of a war against the Soviet Union, and for the formation of local Councils of Action. The national Council of Action held a national meeting on 13th August attended by 1,044 delegates from trade unions, local Labour Parties and trades councils.

2 The newly created People’s Commissar for Foreign Trade who went to London in May 1920 to negotiate a basis for Anglo-Soviet trade.

3 Kamenev was the head of the Soviet peace delegation that arrived in London at the beginning of August 1920. He was accompanied by Krasin and Klyshko. Kameney, a member of the Politburo, advised Lloyd George of Soviet peace terms for an end to the Polish war. On 11th August Lloyd George sent a telegram to the Polish government urging acceptance of the Soviet terms. But on 16th August the Poles counter-attacked the Red Army outside Warsaw and drove them back, securing more favourable terms.

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