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The New International, December 1946


Editorial Comment

Trieste – City Between Two Worlds


From New International, Vol.12 No.10, December 1946, pp.293-295.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


As the Council of Ministers met at London’s Lancaster House over a year ago in their first session on the post-war treaties, the disposition of the city of Trieste was one of the stalemated questions which deadlocked the conference. Since then the Ministers have moved their sessions to the Luxemburg Palace in Paris and, now, to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. However, neither time nor change in locale seems to have reduced the importance of Trieste on the Ministers’ agenda. Quite the contrary, the continued stalemate has elevated the question of Trieste to what appears to be a fantastically disproportionate importance. What is there about this port city on the headwaters of the Adriatic that invests such crucial importance to its control? An investigation reveals that more is involved than Molotov’s intransigeance, Bevin’s belligerence or Byrnes’s addiction to American prestige; that the importance which the question has assumed is rooted in reality rather than the diversionary maneuvers of diplomacy.

Trieste combines two features which have made it a coveted spot in Central European politics for nearly a century. The first feature is that it possesses an excellent harbor and developed port facilities. This, by itself, does not distinguish it from a score of other Mediterranean port cities. It is only in combination with the second feature that its harbor gives Trieste an exceptional status. The second feature is its strategic location on the finger-tips of the long arm of the Adriatic which reaches up into the southern region of Central Europe. These combined features make Trieste the natural outlet to world commerce for an important section of Southern and Central Europe, especially Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia. This important fact was discovered over a century ago by the land-locked Austro-Hungarian Empire when its capitalist development made it acutely aware of the need for an outlet to the sea and a naval base for a Mediterranean fleet. The development of Trieste into a world port dates from this period.

Were the issue of Trieste confined to whether it should provide Yugoslavia with a direct outlet or whether Italy should hold it as a key to the European hinterland served by the port, it would not transcend in importance the place it occupied at the close of World War I when an Italian coup settled its fate. Its transcendent importance today arises from the fact that it is the natural spot for the Russian world to open a new “window to the sea.” Trieste has a tremendous economic and naval importance to the Russian world. In a sense it takes the place of the old Czarist dream of Constantinople. That Russian ambitions should center on the Adriatic rather than on the Dardanelles is by itself a measurement of Russia’s changed status as a world power today as compared to the pre-World War I period.

The Anti-Russian Strategy

Like Constantinople, Trieste has only a negative – that is, an anti-Russian – importance to the Western powers. The importance of keeping the decadent Ottoman Empire astride the Dardanelles lay in holding Russia bottled up in the Black Sea. The importance of keeping Trieste out of Russian hands today lies in keeping Russia out of the Adriatic. (The mountainous Yugoslavian and Albanian coasts on the Adriatic offer no good harbors and but poor connections with the interior.) Trieste remains the last possible Russian break-through to the sea before the changed power relations set in flux by the war definitely jell. If Anglo-American imperialism succeeds in keeping Trieste out of Russian hands, it will have contained Russia in its essentially land-locked sphere despite its tremendous territorial gains. Petsamo on the open Arctic serves Russia little better than its own Murmansk. Danzig and Stettin are east of the Danish peninusla and, in effect, leave Russia as distant from the Atlantic as its own Leningrad. The bloody British excursion into Greece to “restore order” headed off the Russian push toward Salonika. Compared to other possible outlets, Trieste was not only more strategically located, but it offered greater possibilities of a Russian success.

All factors, therefore, seemed to combine to make Trieste a pivotal question in determining the future of Central and Southern Europe. Every form of military threat, political pressure and diplomatic stratagem was brought to focus upon this spot. Millions of words and tons of papers were expended in the arguments pro and con – none of which dealt with what was really at stake. Yet in the arguments of neither side appeared as much as a suggestion that perhaps the quarter-million inhabitants of the city and its immediate environs, which compose the province of Venezia-Giulia, should have a voice in determining what kind of government they desire. The inhabitants interested the contending imperialist camps only insofar as they furnished material for inspired demonstrations in behalf of one side or the other, demonstrations which invariably ended with riots and bloody heads.

A revolutionary Marxist policy applied to this question must make the desires of the population of the area the starting point. Not the Kremlin nor the State Department in Washington, but the people of the disputed territory must decide its fate. The first demand must therefore be for a plebiscite by which the people can determine their own future. In this, as in all other questions, Marxists remain not only consistent democrats but Marxists reveal themselves to be the only political tendency capable of a consistently democratic policy today.

The demand for a plebiscite, however, only indicates who should decide the question. There still remains the question of how it should be decided: To speak of self-determination for Poland or Indonesia today is to speak of independence for these nations. All we demand is that they be given a chance to decide, for the outcome is a foregone conclusion. In the case of Trieste, more is needed. No one can seriously propose statehood for Venezia-Giulia. Aside from the absence of any historic or economic basis for such a demand, the mere fact that not one per cent of its inhabitants could be rallied behind such a proposal reveals that it is not a serious political solution. Nor has it standing as a propagandist slogan. In the sphere of propaganda the Marxists call for a Socialist Italy and a Socialist Yugoslavia in a Socialist United States of Europe.

The proposed solution of a “Free Territory” under United Nations trusteeship means only one of two things: either continued Anglo-American military government, regardless of how it is enforced, or a temporary “solution” while each side conducts the struggle at only slightly reduced tempo aimed at lining up strength for a final showdown.

For Adherence to Italy

The real choice is, therefore, between adherence to Yugoslavia or to Italy. Remaining consistent democrats, the Marxists favor adherence to Italy. Questions of ethnic majorities are not decisive in this instance. What is decisive is that Yugoslavia is a dictatorship that is rapidly becoming totalitarianized in the complete Russian pattern, while Italy is a bourgeois democracy, wretched and unstable, but a bourgeois democracy nevertheless. In Yugoslavia the new Stalinist hierarchy, with Tito at its head, rules through its own GPU and concentration camps, while in Italy a free labor movement lives and struggles and undergoes experiences which, we hope, will produce a mass revolutionary party adhering to the Fourth International. In Yugoslavia even clerical and conservative non-conformists are silenced, while in Italy even the Trotskyists have a legal party and press.

The Marxists of both Yugoslavia and Italy, opponents of both Italian and Yugoslavian chauvinism and of Russian and Anglo-American imperialism, need make no apologies for such a stand. The workers of Trieste are confronted with a choice between slow poison or the bullet through the head. Unfortunately, there is no realistic third alternative today. It is possible to resist the slow poison of bourgeois democracy and grow strong enough to conquer the poisoners. But to survive the bullet is another matter.

That the national composition of Venezia-Giulia is allegedly Slavic in its majority does not affect this demand. The democratic right to join their co-nationals in Yugoslavia is meaningless when this means placing their necks in the noose of Tito’s police regime. Slavic nationality has not saved the thousands of inmates of Tito’s concentration camps. The appeal for adherence to Italy proceeds not from national or ethnic considerations but solely from the democratic needs of the workers, regardless of nationality. It offers the possibility of enjoying the freedom necessary to organize and struggle.

As with so many other living political questions, the question of Trieste permits no solution compatible with participation in political life for those who still cling to the position that Russia is a workers’ state, regardless of how badly degenerated. Proceeding from the latter concept, it is impossible to favor adherence of Trieste to Italy instead of the Russian outpost and prototype, Yugoslavia. We hesitate to demand that the “workers’ staters” in the Fourth Internationalist movement break their silence on Trieste and give us their answer. The sight of these “Russian experts” prostrate on their backs as they desperately wrestle with the Polish question which we posed to them some months ago precludes such unsportsmanlike conduct on our part. We therefore modestly suggest that they may prefer to call it quits on the Polish question for the time being and make a stab at the Trieste issue. Do you favor solution of the Trieste dispute by plebiscite? If so, how should the workers of Trieste vote?

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