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Irving Howe

World Politics

The Paris Peace Congress

(17 June 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 24, 17 June 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

All of the smoldering conflicts between America and Britain on the one hand and Russia on the other will reach a head at the meeting of Foreign Ministers in Paris on June 15. There is a general feeling in diplomatic circles of America and Britain, a feeling which readily finds its way into the press, that a failure to reach agreement on the reorganization of Europe at this conference will make impossible the construction of a peace treaty and will indefinitely perpetuate the present stalemate of disorganization and confusion.

The crisis is chronic; it is deep; and no rhetorical flourishes can ease its severity. For what is at stake is nothing less than the question: who will control Europe, Anglo-American capitalism or Stalinist Russia? Concretely, at the present moment that means: who will control Germany which, despite its partial destruction by bombing, remains the industrial heart of Europe; and who will control the strategic port of Trieste?

When the question is posed this way, as one involving basic imperialist conflict, it can be seen how vacuous and infantile has been 99 per cent of the comment in the daily press on the stalemate among the “Big Three.” That Molotov is an obtuse dunderhead parrotting the ‘ instructions of the Stalin dictatorship; that Byrnes is a cracker politician of (to put it delicately) limited vision; that Bevin is an obstinate bureaucrat distinguishable from his Tory predecessor only by his lack of manners – this is of tenth-rate significance. The superficial foreign correspondents seize upon the admittedly none too admirable personalities of the negotiators as an explanation for the diplomatic deadlock, because they are unable to understand the basic issues.

The Struggle to Control Trieste

Take, for instance, the matter of Trieste, the important port which lies between Italy and Yugoslavia. It has been a bone of contention between the Italian and Slavic imperialists for many decades; its conglomerate population, predominantly Italian, has recently been subjugated to a virtual civil war, in which British troops have buttressed the otherwise weak Italian government. The Stalinist-supported Tito dictatorship of Yugoslavia has kept troops mobilized on the border to contribute its share to the war of nerves.

For the disposition of Trieste is of first importance in the determination of the political character of Europe. Trieste is a terminal port for central Europe. Whoever controls it, also controls the Adriatic sea. That means that if Tito got Trieste, Russia would in effect have acquired control of the Adriatic and would have gone a long way to closing the vast pincer movement, flanked on the left by its infiltration of Iran and its designs on Turkey and on the right by its penetration to the Adriatic, with which it has been menacing British domination of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. (Russia’s insistence that the Italian navy be obliterated acquires additional significance in light of this situation; the absence of an Italian navy would make basic domination of the Adriatic.) This, then, is a vast imperialist squeeze play by the Russians and against which the British are fighting desperately.

Trieste, one of those pivotal port cities which, like Danzig, seems to bear the tragic destiny of becoming the focal point around which the drift to imperialist war is centered – this city will itself play no role in determining its future. It would seem obvious that if the disposition of a city or area is in dispute that the people in that city be allowed themselves to determine, their destiny by plebiscite. But the victors of the Second World War, whatever their differences, are agreed that the determination of the future of Trieste and other disputed places must be made in secret conference by diplomatic fencing and military threats. The talk about “democracy” and “self-determination” was useful during the war when it was necessary to lead men to death; but surely now, when the booty is being divided and idealistic rhetoric is at an end, no one can seriously expect that the people of Trieste will be allowed to determine their own destiny!

Trieste and the European Tragedy

The tragedy of Europe is concentrated in this city. Constant guerrilla warfare cripples Trieste. The British administration is inept and bureaucratic. It is probable that a plebiscite in Trieste itself would result in a majority for the Italians: the forty day reign of Tito’s terror last May and June left a bitter taste in the mouths of many of Trieste’s people. But that is of secondary importance. What is important is that the workers of Trieste are being demoralized by nationalist propaganda from both sides, that they are being subjected to a nationalist tug of war.

The Stalinist Party of Trieste is in a most uncomfortable position. It has to decide between the position of its Yugoslavian sister party, which is heatedly in favor of annexation to Yugoslavia, and the position of the Italian Stalinists who urge annexation to Italy. (This is the Stalinist version of internationalism!) The Trieste Stalinist movement, despite internal dissensions, has officially come out for annexation to Yugoslavia, a decision which rapidly followed the official Russian declaration in favor of the same position – and which earned the Trieste Stalinists the embarrassed condemnation of the leader of Italian Stalinism, Togliatti.

In the meantime, the functioning of the port is in a state of virtual paralysis. The Italian and Yugoslavian governments subsidize demonstrations – men will shout almost anything if they are hungry enough.

Multiply this situation indefinitely, and you have a picture of the tragic, heartbreaking situation of Europe today: a continent prostrate and victim to a ruthless and ceaseless struggle between the former victorious war partners. And the Foreign Ministers Conference meeting in Paris this week will see this issue of Trieste, and the other similar issues, brought to a climactic discussion. The imperialist powers will make a perhaps final attempt to reach some working agreement, but whatever that agreement or non-agreement may be we can say in advance: the domination of Europe by either Russian Stalinism or Anglo-American imperialism or both will result in the further disintegration of the continent. That is why the first duty of the revolutionary movement in Europe must be to take the lead in the struggle to drive out ALL armies of occupation from their borders so that the workers of Europe can begin once again painfully and slowly to reassert their needs.

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