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Brian Pearce

‘Export of Revolution’, 1917–1924

(August 1958)

From Labour Review, Vol. 3 No. 4, August–September 1958, pp. 104–108 & 117–119.
Transcribed, edited & formatted for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) by Ted Crawford, Paul Flewers and David Walters.

On the great Lenin’s teaching, ‘export of revolutions’ was nonsense. – Y.A. Malik, Soviet Ambassador in London, in a television interview, reported in the Manchester Guardian, 3 February 1958.

The victorious proletariat… having expropriated the capitalists and organised its own socialist production, would confront the rest of the capitalist world, attract to itself the oppressed classes of other countries, raise revolts among them against the capitalists, and in the event of necessity, come out even with armed force against the exploiting classes and their states. – V.I. Lenin, The United States of Europe Slogan (1915), Selected Works, English edition, Volume 5 (1936), p. 14.

Therefore, the development and support of revolution in other countries is an essential task of the victorious revolution. Therefore, the revolution which has been victorious in one country must regard itself not as a self-sufficient entity, but as an aid, as a means for hastening the victory of the proletariat in other countries. – J.V. Stalin, ‘Foundations of Leninism’ (April 1924), Works, English edition, Volume 6 (1953), p. 111.

The export of revolution is nonsense. – J.V. Stalin, interview with Roy Howard, March 1936, published as Is War Inevitable? by the Friends of the Soviet Union, 1936, p. 8.

CURRENT discussion around the idea of peaceful ‘coexistence’ necessarily involves considering the relations that exist between the Soviet Union and the international working-class movement. Is peaceful coexistence between the Soviet Union and the capitalist states compatible with active help by the former to the workers’ struggle in the latter? Or does it mean that the Soviet authorities must be indifferent or even hostile towards forces that threaten their partners in coexistence? Recently this question has arisen with particular sharpness in connexion both with Soviet foreign policy and with the ‘line’ promoted by the Soviet government through the communist parties which it controls, regarding unilateral nuclear disarmament by this country, and also in connexion with the Algerian revolution. For example, was it correct for Khrushchev, as leader of the strongest workers’ state, to declare that Algeria must remain within the French Union, to indicate through his Ambassador in Paris that he considered Bizerta ought to remain under French control, and to be the first foreign statesman to greet de Gaulle with a personal message on his coming to power in France? If the Soviet Union wishes to come to some sort of agreement with de Gaulle, does it follow that it should turn its back on, restrain, or even actively discourage, the fight of the French workers and the Algerian workers and peasants against him?

Consideration of these and similar topical questions is leading increasing numbers of socialists, especially members and recent members of the Communist Party, to re-examine Soviet and communist policy in international affairs since the war, during the war and before the war. As the technique of the Stalinists in trying to hinder and frustrate such reconsideration of the past is, first and foremost, to pretend that the Soviet Communist Party has always pursued essentially the same foreign policy which it has followed since the later twenties, it may be useful to recall the theory and practice of that party in the sphere of foreign affairs during the early years after the October Revolution. There appears to be a good deal of ignorance and misinformation around where this is concerned: many imagine that Trotsky and the Left Opposition were putting forward new, unheard-of ideas when they began criticising Stalin’s foreign policy, and it is supposed also that what they advocated was the use of the Red Army to ‘make revolutions’ – rather as was done by Stalin in the Baltic States in 1940!

The fundamental approach of the Bolsheviks in power to the conduct of relations with the capitalist states encircling them was defined by Trotsky, as Commissar for Foreign Affairs, on 12 December 1917, in his introduction to a new edition of What Is a Peace Programme?:

We have to open negotiations with those governments which at present exist. However, we are conducting these negotiations in a way that affords the peoples the fullest possibility of controlling the crimes of their governments, and so to accelerate the rising of the working masses against the imperialist cliques. We are ready to support this uprising with all the forces at our command.

The Soviets could not refuse to deal with the surrounding world as they found it. Their dealings, however, would be guided by concern to facilitate the changing of that world in the same direction in which Russia was being changed. They put all their cards frankly on the table at this stage, when a rapid advance of the world revolution seemed probable. On 24 December 1917, the Council of People’s Commissars passed the following decree:

Taking into consideration that the Soviet government is based on the principles of the international solidarity of the proletariat and on the brotherhood of the toilers of all countries, and that the struggle against war and imperialism can be brought to a completely successful conclusion only if waged on an international scale, the Council of People’s Commissars considers it necessary to offer assistance by all possible means to the Left internationalist wing of the labour movement of all countries, regardless of whether these countries are at war with Russia, in alliance with Russia, or neutral. For this purpose the Council of People’s Commissars decides to allocate two million roubles for the needs of the revolutionary international movement and to put this sum at the disposal of the foreign representatives of the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs. [1]

The key words in this decree were: ‘regardless of whether these countries are at war with Russia, in alliance with Russia, or neutral’. Their implications were made clear when the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party voted, on 22 February 1918, in favour of accepting aid from the Allied Powers, if it could be obtained, in the form of supplies and military instructors, for resistance to German attack. The motion, which was put by Trotsky and passed by a majority of one, included the provision that ‘at the same time the party… undertakes no political obligations toward the capitalist governments’. [2] When proposing to the American Colonel Robins that American engineers help to get Russia’s ruined railways back into operation, with as quid pro quo the right to bring out of danger of capture by the Germans certain munitions dumps located near the front, Trotsky summed up the principle behind the suggested bargain in the words: ‘Mutual services, mutual benefits, and no pretences!’ This was put more formally in a note from Trotsky to Robins regarding possible more extensive forms of aid:

All these questions are conditioned with the self-understood assumption that the internal and foreign policies of the Soviet government will continue to be directed in accord with the principles of international socialism and that the Soviet government retains its complete independence of all non-socialist governments. [3]

There could be no question of Soviet Russia, in return for military help from the Allies, calling on the workers of the Allied countries to abandon their struggles against their own capitalists; the imperialist war remained imperialist.

When Allied aid failed to materialise and Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, this turn of events necessitated a change in the form – though not in the contents – of Soviet foreign relations. Addressing the Petrograd Soviet, Lenin, on 23 February 1918, replied to the objection that the treaty obliged the Soviets ‘to put a stop to agitation against the [German] imperialists, to give up the preparation for a world revolution’:

I did not think [he said] that I had to do with political children here, but with old, illegal party people, who know right well how one could carry on agitation under the Tsar. The Kaiser is no cleverer than Nicholas… The Central Executive Committee [of the soviets] signs the peace, the Council of People’s Commissars signs the peace, but still that is not the Central Committee of the party. For the behaviour of the latter the Soviet government is not responsible. [4]

At the Seventh Party Congress, in March, Sverdlov explained that the practical significance of this section of the treaty was that international propaganda work would have to be transferred from the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs to the organs of the party; and the congress reaffirmed that ‘the socialist proletariat of Russia will do everything within its power and will use all its resources to help the fraternal revolutionary movement of the proletariat of all countries’. [5]

The fight of the Bolsheviks in the Ukraine against the German occupying forces received clandestine support from Soviet Russia during the entire period between Brest-Litovsk and the German withdrawal. It is noteworthy that Trotsky, now Commissar for War, warned against methods of ‘help’ to the Ukraine which were ill-considered. At the Fifth Congress of Soviets, in July 1918, he denounced the provocative behaviour of irresponsible bands operating on the Russo-Ukrainian frontier, which ‘were very brave when it came to cutting off small parties of Germans and annihilating them by overwhelming force. But they would be the first to disappear at the sight of a company of German helmets.’ (This roused the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries to fury; accusing Trotsky of selling the pass to Hohenzollern imperialism, they walked out of the Congress.) [6]

The situation was further complicated when Allied intervention began while German forces were still in occupation of Russian territory. In August 1918, Foreign Commissar Chicherin agreed with the German Ambassador that the German troops in Estonia and Finland might move across Karelia to take on the British who had landed at Murmansk, so as to enable the Red Army to be withdrawn from the northern front and redeployed to defend Moscow. In mentioning this episode, the historian Dallin appositely notes that Joffe, the Soviet Ambassador in Berlin, was at this very time redoubling his activities in support of the revolutionary movement in Germany. [7]

Whatever tacking between the rival imperialist camps might be forced upon the Soviet government, support of the anti-imperialist fight in all countries without exception remained a constant element in its policy. Mentioning in his report on foreign relations to the Central Executive Committee on 2 September 1918 that Germany had protested against aid coming from Russia to strikers in the Ukraine, Chicherin declared that:

We cannot forbid private persons and workers’ organisations collecting money for the strikers, or forbid Russian citizens in general from spreading revolutionary ideas. Some of the German demands go beyond the limits of what the workers’ and peasants’ revolutionary government can do. [8]

Lenin summed up this entire phase of Soviet foreign relations in a speech on 27 November 1920, when he said:

It might seem that what we had was a kind of bloc of the first socialist republic and German imperialism against the other imperialism. But we did not make any bloc; nowhere did we overstep the line beyond which injury or shame might have been brought upon the socialist power; we only exploited the difference between the two imperialisms in such a way that in the long run both lost. Germany got nothing from the Brest peace except a few million poods of grain, but it brought Bolshevist disintegration into Germany. We won time, in the course of which the Red Army began to form ... [9]

Chicherin, formulating the principles of Soviet foreign policy for the future, had already affirmed, in the Communist International for October 1919, that Soviet Russia’s task was ‘to live in peace with all governments, or to try to do so, but to keep itself carefully apart from any coalitions and combinations serving imperialist appetites’. [10]

Thus the ideas that are nowadays widely thought of as ‘Trotskyist’ were the generally accepted foundations of Soviet foreign policy in 1917–19, and Trotsky had distinguished himself from other Bolshevik leaders in this sphere only by leading the fight for acceptance of aid from imperialist powers and by opposing adventuristic methods of aiding a revolutionary movement beyond Russia’s borders.

In 1920, the repulse of Pilsudski’s march into the Ukraine gave rise to a dispute in the Bolshevik party leadership whether or not to invade Poland and try to ‘revolutionise’ that country by armed force. According to what was the official history of the Bolshevik party before the notorious Short Course appeared in 1938:

Trotsky was opposed to the advance on Warsaw ... due to a social-democratic prejudice to the effect that it was wrong to carry revolution into a country from the outside. For these same reasons Trotsky was opposed to the Red Army aiding the rebels in Georgia in February 1921. [11]

Trotsky’s side of the story is given in his autobiography:

A point of view that the war [with Poland], which had begun as one of defence, should be turned into an offensive and revolutionary war began to grow and acquire strength. In principle, of course, I could not possibly have any objection to such a course. The question was simply one of the correlation of forces. The unknown quantity was the attitude of the Polish workers and peasants. Some of our Polish comrades, such as the late J. Marchlewski, a co-worker of Rosa Luxemburg’s, weighed the situation very soberly. His estimation was an important factor in my desire to get out of the war as quickly as possible ...

After mentioning the disastrous outcome of the ‘march on Warsaw’, Trotsky comments:

The error in the strategic calculations in the Polish war had great historical consequences. The Poland of Pilsudski came out of the war unexpectedly strengthened. On the other hand, the development of the Polish revolution received a crushing blow. The frontier established by the Riga treaty cut off the Soviet Republic from Germany, a fact that later was of great importance in the lives of both countries. [12]

As regards Georgia, what happened there was that the invasion began on the initiative of the local Red Army Command; Ordzhonikidze, the party representative involved, who was backed by Stalin, convinced the Political Bureau that a revolt with strong popular backing had broken out in Georgia and Red Army intervention would shorten the struggle. In fact, the rising did not enjoy such backing as had been claimed for it, and it took the Red Army a fortnight of heavy fighting to reach Tbilisi. Trotsky was in the Urals at the time and learnt of the operation only after it was under way; his view was that it would have been better to carry on some underground preparatory work first, and develop the revolt, and only later, should this prove necessary, come to its aid with the Red Army. [13] In the book about the Georgian affair which he wrote, on party instructions (and which was a best-seller in British communist circles in the early twenties), Trotsky affirmed the right of the Red Army to assist a fully-fledged revolutionary movement, while evading a direct answer to the question whether such a movement had existed in Georgia. The passage deserves quoting:

Soviet Russia does not by any means intend to make its military power take the place of the revolutionary efforts of the proletariats of other countries. The conquest of proletarian power must be an outcome of proletarian political experience. This does not mean that the revolutionary efforts of the workers of Georgia or any other country must not receive any military support from outside. It is only essential that this support should come at a moment when the need for it has been created by the political development of the workers, and recognised by the class-conscious revolutionary vanguard, who have won the sympathy of the majority of the workers. These are questions of revolutionary strategy, and not a formal democratic ritual. [14]

The discussion in the international communist movement around the lessons of the unsuccessful ‘March Action’ in Germany in 1921 gave Trotsky occasion to clarify still further the relation between the activity of Soviet Russia as a state and the progress of the revolutionary movement abroad. Some had been saying that the Russian communists had deliberately incited the Germans to a premature, doomed revolt, in order to relieve the pressure on themselves at the time of the Kronstadt mutiny. Not only was this not true, but ‘if we were capable of such treachery, we would all deserve to be lined up against the wall and shot down one by one’. Others, however, had said that subsequent Russian criticism of the ‘offensive’ tactics of the German communists resulted from concern lest revolutions in the West should disturb the working of the trade agreements which the Soviet government had newly concluded with certain capitalist states. This was absurd, ‘because our rather tenuous trade relations with the West will never provide us with such aid as we could receive from a victorious proletarian revolution’ – which, moreover, would enable Russia to reduce her burdensome expenditure on defence. Soviet Russia was ‘interested only in the internal, logical development of the revolutionary forces of the proletariat, and not at all in artificially speeding up or retarding the revolutionary development’. Furthermore:

Moscow does not at all hold a ‘Muscovite’ point of view. For us, the Russian Soviet Republic constitutes only the point of departure of the European and world revolution. The interests of the latter are for us decisive in every major question. [15]

The year of 1922 provided the experience of Soviet aid to a bourgeois state fighting against other bourgeois states – in this instance a semi-colonial country, Turkey, fighting for its freedom against imperialist Britain and the latter’s stooge, Greece. According to the historian Louis Fischer, when Kemal asked for Soviet help, Stalin was against this being given, on the grounds that a strong Turkey would be a menace to Caucasia, but Trotsky, together with Lenin, supported the giving of aid. [16] While arms and other supplies were sent to Kemal, there was no attempt to whitewash his regime; and when he took to persecuting the Turkish communists, the Communist International, in an open letter to the working people of Turkey, denounced this development, warned that it would alienate from Turkey the sympathy of the world’s workers, and pointed to the connexion between the suppression of the working-class movement and moves towards compromise with the imperialists. [17] Addressing the Executive Committee of the Comintern, Karl Radek, in words that seem prophetically to refer to the disastrous cult of Chiang Kai-Shek that was to emerge later, bluntly stated that Soviet Russia’s support for the Turkish national struggle did not involve ‘faith in every pasha who calls himself a people’s commissary and sends a telegram to Lenin’. Turkish independence was in the interests of Soviet Russia and the international working class; that was why the nationalist forces had been helped. [18]

The year of 1922 saw also Soviet Russia’s first political treaty with a major European state – the Treaty of Rapallo whereby Russia and Weimar Germany recognised each other and cancelled reciprocally all outstanding claims. Asked whether Rapallo constituted a Russo-German alliance against other states in Europe, Trotsky declared:

Germany is separated from the Soviet Republic by the same basic contradictions of property system as the countries of the Entente. This means that the possibility of talking of the Rapallo Treaty as of some defensive-offensive alliance to counterbalance other states is excluded. It is a question of the re-establishment of the most elementary inter-state and economic relations. On the principles of the Rapallo Treaty, Soviet Russia is ready to sign today a treaty with any other country. [19]

The limited character of the Rapallo Treaty was underlined by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets in its resolution of 17 May 1922, wherein it said that it ‘recognises as normal for relations between the RSFSR and capitalist states only this type of treaty’. [20] The diplomat Joffe wrote frankly that:

Whether or not this is to the liking of the German bourgeoisie and its lackeys, the Treaty of Rapallo in any case not only breaks up the united bourgeois front but also establishes a firm rapprochement between the working people of Russia and Germany and foreshadows a united revolutionary front. That is what guarantees its lastingness. [21]

The Executive Committee of the Comintern spoke similarly to clear away any misconception that could arise from the treaty as regards its interest in a German revolution:

On the German side the treaty was signed by the present bourgeois-Menshevik government, but everybody understands that while the position of the bourgeois-Menshevik German government is a temporary thing, the German working class remains. The German working class will one day inevitably conquer power in their own country. Germany will become a Soviet republic. And then, when the German-Soviet treaty brings together two great Soviet republics, it will provide such unshakable foundations for real communist construction that the old and outworn Europe will not be able to withstand it for even a few years. In this sense the fate of humanity in the next few years will be determined by the successes of the German working class. [22]

Taking into account the experiences in relation to Turkey and Germany, Soviet participation in the Genoa and Hague conferences, the trade agreement with Britain and other connexions with capitalist states established by Soviet Russia in 1921–22, Bukharin included the following in the draft for a programme of the Communist International which he submitted to the latter’s Fourth Congress, towards the end of 1922:

In view of the fact that the power cannot be seized by the proletariat simultaneously in all, or even in the most important countries, and that single proletarian states come into being – compromises on the field of foreign diplomacy by the proletarian states (commercial connexions abroad, loans, policy of concessions, participation in general conferences, and other forms of agreements, including military agreements) are possible, permissible and at times even obligatory. This policy, dictated in each case by the necessity of attaining some purpose, has, however, nothing in common with pacifism as a principle. On the contrary, the Communist International recognises in the fullest degree the right of the proletarian republics to intervene in the interests of the oppressed and exploited.

The question of defending a native country can no longer be put in so general a form as at the beginning of the war, before a proletarian state was established. In the first place, the proletariat of all countries must aid the defence of this proletarian state, and even aid in its extension as the extension of the base of international revolution.

The question of the attitude to be adopted towards war is further complicated by the perfect admissibility in principle of the formation of blocs between proletarian states and many bourgeois states, against other bourgeois states in accordance with the particular war in question. The question must be solved with regard to concrete expediency of purpose, and the strategy of the general struggle is to be worked out by the Communist International. [23]

When the suggestion was put forward that what he had said meant that Soviet Russia might sacrifice the interests of the working class in certain countries for the sake of an alliance with the bourgeoisie of these countries, Bukharin wrote in reply:

What is under discussion is my statement that a proletarian government might, under certain conditions, conclude agreements with bourgeois states, and that these temporary agreements, insofar as they are directed to serving the interests of the revolution and are carried out under the supervision of the International, must, naturally, be supported by the International.

If a revolution were to break out in Germany, and Poland struck at Germany from the East, then revolutionary Russia would probably be obliged to attack Poland.

And, in these circumstances, should ‘petty-bourgeois Lithuania decide to take the opportunity offered to attack Poland for her own ends, conclusion of a military-political agreement between Russia and Lithuania would be fully admissible’.

In the course of the decades through which the social revolution might have to pass, many proletarian states might be obliged to make temporary agreements with ‘oppressed or semi-oppressed bourgeois states, with weaker and threatened states against stronger and threatening ones’. Each possible instance of such an agreement would have to be carefully considered:

It goes without saying that no agreement is permissible by which workers’ states could be made directly or indirectly into the tools of imperialism, tools for the oppression of other peoples. Agreements of the nature mentioned must be evaluated not in the light of the superficially-interpreted and actually non-existent interests of one workers’ state, but in the light of the world proletarian movement as a whole. The Communist International is the organ to carry out such international supervision. [24]

Bukharin’s idea of a revolution in Germany being helped by Soviet Russia, if necessary by forcing the frontiers of a hostile Poland, occurs also in the fascinating fantasy published in 1922 by the well-known economist Preobrazhensky, in the form of lectures delivered in 1970 on ‘how socialism had come to Europe’. He describes how Soviet Russia’s industry made big advances but came up against a brake in the backwardness and stagnation of agriculture, and the country felt increasing need of economic help from the West:

If the revolution in the West had delayed too long, this situation could have led to an aggressive socialist war by Russia against the capitalist West, with the support of the European proletariat. This did not happen, however, because at that time the proletarian revolution was already, through the working of the laws of its own internal development, knocking at the door. True, as you know, the further development of events did bring war too, but this war assumed the character not of the principal means for solving an unsolved historical problem, not the role of midwife, but the role of her technical assistant in easing the birth-pangs.

Revolution in Germany led to intervention by France and Poland, followed by counter-intervention on Russia’s part. From this conflict emerged a socialist federation of Europe:

The new Soviet Europe opened a fresh page in the province of economic development. Germany’s industrial technique was united with Russian agriculture, and on the territory of Europe there began rapidly to develop and consolidate a new kind of economic organism, which opened up immense possibilities and gave a mighty impetus to the development of the productive forces. And therewith Soviet Russia, which had previously outstripped Europe in the political field, now modestly took its place as an economically backward country in the rear of the advanced industrial countries of the proletarian dictatorship. [25]

Trotsky himself took up the general question of the international duties of the first workers’ state in an original way in an article written in late 1922 for the benefit of French communists who had found ‘contradictory’ the entertainment by the Soviet authorities of Herriot, the leader of the French radicals, while a communist who advocated alliance between the radicals and communists in France was expelled from the party:

We might compare our negotiations with M. Herriot, a prominent representative of the country which during five years opposed us with arms and blockaded us, to the negotiations carried on by locked-out workmen with the representatives of that section of the capitalists willing to discuss terms. Such negotiations between the workers and capitalist magnates are only an episode in the class struggle, just as any strike or lock-out is.

Comparing the position of Soviet Russia in the capitalist world with that of a communist worker employed in the Renault works, Trotsky wrote that of a man in his position:

... we should demand that in his dealings with the capitalists he shall not undermine the solidarity of the working class, shall not act as a strike-breaker, but on the contrary, that he combat all forms of strike-breaking. The same is required of the Soviet government in its dealings with the bourgeois governments.

Good relations between the Soviet government and the radical leader in no way modified the communist line in France: ‘The Comintern will as heretofore expel from its ranks every renegade who attempts to preach Left-Bloc-ism to the French workers. [26]

The French invasion of the Ruhr in 1923 and the revolutionary crisis in Germany to which it gave rise turned into questions of immediate practical politics what had been until then matter for speculation. A German workers’ revolution would be threatened by blockade from the West and military attack from the East, from Poland. Accordingly, the Soviet authorities accumulated large stocks of grain in Petrograd and at other points along the western frontier, ready to be rushed to Germany. Diplomatic soundings were made in the Baltic States and in Poland with a view to these countries according free transit to this grain. [27] Soviet policy was directed towards ensuring the victory of the German workers, peacefully if possible, by other methods if necessary. Interviewed by the Manchester Guardian in March, Trotsky, then still Commissar for War, insisted that there was no contradiction between the interests of the Soviet state and those of the Communist International.

Soviet Russia is interested in the growth of powerful labour organisations and in the heightening of their class consciousness ... The national interests of Russia coincide with the interests of her ruling class, that is, the proletariat. But the genuine interests of the working class cannot be satisfied otherwise than by international means, that is, by means of the establishment of a world federation of republics based on labour and its solidarity.

War would be most undesirable from the point of view of the revolution, in that it would mean that the proletariat of Europe would take over in the midst of ruins, as had happened in Russia: ‘We, from a revolutionary point of view, are vitally interested in the preservation of peace.’ If, however, Poland were to attack Germany, Russia could not but be affected, for this would constitute a blow to Europe’s economy and a strengthening of nationalist reaction – ‘and both these are contrary to the interests of the revolution’. [28]

The leading article in Izvestia for 29 September 1923 reminded all concerned that ‘we have never renounced our idea of furthering by all means the development of the international revolution, which will lead us to final victory. We are on the threshold of great events and we must be ready for them in time…’ [29] On the following day, Trotsky, in an interview given to a Western politician, again emphasised the lack of desire on the part of the Soviets for a warlike solution:

War would harm the German revolution. Only that revolution is capable of life which succeeds by its own strength, especially when a great people is concerned. We are entirely on the side of the victims of rapacious and bloody French imperialism. We are with the German working class with all our soul in its struggle against foreign and domestic exploitation. But at the same time we are entirely for peace. [30]

He made the same point in his address of 20 October to the transport workers’ congress:

We are above all interested in the German working class settling its problems with its own forces, while peace prevails around Germany, so that civil war in Germany does not become transformed into imperialist war around Germany and within Germany itself.

The most important form of aid that Soviet Russia could render the German revolution was economic, and Poland was being urged to allow such aid to be rendered across her territory, in return for economic concessions by Russia, which would give Polish goods free access to markets in Asia. The Russian peasants should be shown how important from their standpoint it was that the German revolution should conquer: this would mean an outlet for their grain and also, in return, cheaper and more plentiful manufactured goods. [31] Again, on 21 October, addressing army political commissars, Trotsky stressed the need to avoid any pose of militarist aggressiveness. It was not only a matter of world opinion but primarily one of the attitude of the Russian peasants, who would not go to war except for a cause they fully understood and accepted. ‘We must ensure that the link between our fundamental interests and those of the working people of Germany becomes clear and tangible to every Red Army soldier.’ [32] (No sign of underestimation of the peasantry here!)

In fact, as is all too well known, the German revolution of 1923 did not come off. The Comintern leadership showed lack of confidence in the German workers and supported a policy of holding them back at the decisive moment, which led to a disastrous and fateful defeat. The other side of this failure of confidence was the appearance for the first time of a new note in Soviet policy, out of harmony with the traditional one, and which in subsequent years was to become the dominant note, as the bureaucracy consolidated its power and the complex of ideas and procedures known as ‘Stalinism’ took shape.

When in 1920 a tendency had appeared among the German communists towards what was called ‘national Bolshevism’, that is, a bloc with nationalist elements of the German bourgeoisie to fight against France, this had been formally condemned by the Soviet leaders. Lenin’s remarks on the subject are well known. [33] The Comintern Executive wrote in a letter to Germany:

War against the Entente is the alpha and omega of the policy of Laufenberg and his comrades. It may be that war with Entente capitalism will become a necessity for Soviet Germany if the workers in the Entente countries should not come quickly enough to the help of a victorious proletariat in Germany. But should this war have to be fought, the German proletariat will find it more than ever necessary to defeat the German bourgeoisie… Laufenberg and Wolffheim are spreading the poison of the illusion that the German bourgeoisie could, out of nationalist hatred, become allies of the proletariat. If the proletariat were to be fooled by this idea they would become cannon-fodder for German capital which, under the flag of the sham Soviet republic, would use the proletariat for war against the Entente, and then discard the cloak and openly re-establish capitalist rule. [34]

Again, in the theses on tactics adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International (July 1921), the German communists were warned that:

Only if it proves by forceful and unrelenting struggle against the German government that it is not trying to save bankrupt German imperialism, but to clear the ground of the ruins of German imperialism, can the German Communist Party intensify among the French proletarian masses the will to fight French imperialism ... [35]

And in a manifesto on the occasion of a joint conference of the French and German communist parties in September 1922, the Comintern called on the French workers to fight their own government, ‘not in order to help German imperialism to get on its feet again, but so that the removal of the military pressure of French imperialism may liberate the forces of the German proletariat for the German revolution’, and the German workers similarly to fight for a workers’ government in their country, ‘which will relieve the French masses of the fear of a resurgence of German militarism and help them to liberate themselves from the spell of nationalism’. [36]

But already in February 1923 the German communist Thalheimer was reviving the ‘national-Bolshevist’ conception, arguing that German nationalism was a potentially revolutionary factor; and now this found an echo in the leading circles of the Soviet Communist Party. Radek told the Comintern Executive in June that ‘the strong emphasis on the nation in Germany is a revolutionary act, like the emphasis on the nation in the colonies’, and shortly afterwards made his notorious ‘Schlageter’ speech, in which, referring to the recent execution of a German fascist of this name by the French forces occupying the Ruhr, he appealed for a bloc between the communists and the fascists on a basis of struggle for the national freedom of Germany. [37]

From this time onward, the rulers of Soviet Russia were to move more and more in the direction of building their foreign policy (including the policy they promoted through the international communist movement under their control) upon the cultivation of alliances with one or another national bourgeoisie, subordinating the working-class struggle to these alliances. Down to 1927 clear-cut pursuit of this policy was hindered by the open criticism of the Left Opposition inside Russia, and continual zigzagging was made necessary even thereafter by the need to avoid giving too flagrant offence to the Soviet workers or the communist rank and file abroad – and still more by the rebuffs and betrayals of the various national bourgeoisies on whom in turn the Soviet bureaucracy chose to rely rather than on the ‘inadequate’ forces of the international working-class movement.

Ruth Fischer, who saw the effects of the ‘Schlageter line’ in Germany, asserts that Radek was not alone among the Moscow leaders at this time in his views. Associated with him were Bukharin and Varga, with Stalin in the background. In 1922–23, she writes, this group:

... were discovering a new role for the German bourgeoisie, which they changed from the class enemy to a victim suffering almost as much as the German workers ... In shifting the emphasis of the class hatred from its historical object – the German bourgeoisie in all its personifications – to the Entente, the theorists perverted the labour movement of Germany, and consequently of Europe. They aggravated the intellectual and psychological confusion that was the prime condition for the growth of totalitarian ideologies and organisations. [38]

From this time onward one of the themes that constantly recur in Trotsky’s speeches and articles is that of the danger of losing sight of the dependence of the Soviet Union on the world revolution, and the adoption of policies that hindered rather than advanced the latter. In speeches delivered in April 1924 he warned his listeners that though some capitalist states were recognising the Soviet Union, this did not mean they were really reconciled to its existence, and, commenting on French suggestions that the new treaty between Russia and Italy spelt danger to Turkey, he declared that although this treaty meant selling Italy Russian grain, oil and timber – ‘one commodity we don’t sell, and will never sell, is the independence of the peoples of the East’. [39] Even more pointedly, in June, Trotsky warned against false conclusions being drawn from the fact that the growth of communism in the capitalist countries did not always and everywhere directly and immediately improve the international diplomatic position of the Soviet Union. In Germany, for example, the rise of the ‘communist danger’ actually worsened state relations between Russia and that country. But in the last analysis only the victory of communism throughout the world would consolidate the Soviet power completely and finally, and this should never be lost sight of. [40] At the same time, Trotsky opposed adventuristic measures in foreign relations, for example, any attempt forcibly to recover Bessarabia from Rumania, independent of the rise of the revolutionary movement. [41]

Perhaps the most vivid example of the relation between Soviet state dealings with capitalist countries and the Soviet attitude to the revolutionary movement in these countries, before ‘Stalinism’ became completely dominant, is provided by the story of the secret military collaboration between Russia and Germany which developed from 1921 onwards, even before the treaty of Rapallo. The German army authorities were allowed to establish armament factories in Russia and to send officers to train with the Red Army, thereby getting round the demilitarisation articles of the treaty of Versailles. [42] Very considerable benefits came to Soviet Russia from this arrangement. In the field of aviation research and testing, ‘every German technical accomplishment became a starting point for production by the Russians’; [43] and the Soviet chemical industry, through secret German aid, underwent ‘a prodigious expansion, so that in 1930 it accounted for seven per cent of the European production’. [44] On balance, Goering concluded in 1937 that this German-Soviet cooperation had done more harm than good from his standpoint: ‘The dangerous policy of Rapallo had been followed in relation to Russia. As the result of this policy Germany helped Russia in military matters, armed her, sent her instructors, assisted her to build up her war industry.’ [45]

What is relevant to our subject is that this collaboration between his own department, the War Commissariat, and the Reichswehr, was not allowed by Trotsky to affect in any way his attitude and activity in relation to the revolutionary movement inside Germany. Gustav Hilger, an official of the German Embassy in Moscow who served through this period, records that in December 1923 the German government demanded the recall of a certain Petrov from the Soviet Embassy in Berlin. He had been discovered to be a military agent who had bought large quantities of weapons and ammunition for delivery to the German communists in the event of insurrection. Trotsky calmly admitted that he had personally attached Petrov to the Embassy, regarding it as his duty to do so, in view of the situation in Germany. [46] Erich Wollenberg even alleges that in Trotsky’s time the Soviet authorities placed some of the 250,000 gold marks they received annually from the Reichswehr at the disposal of the German Communist Party. [47] It is therefore hardly surprising that Brockdorff-Rantzau, the German Ambassador in Moscow, should have urged his government to influence the press against publishing articles friendly to Trotsky when the conflict between him and the bureaucracy’s political spokesmen began. [48] When a scandal occurred in 1924 in German-Soviet diplomatic relations, as a result of a German communist’s seeking refuge from arrest in a Soviet institution in Berlin and being pursued into it by the German police (the Bozenhardt incident), Trotsky assured Rantzau that this affair need have no effect on the secret military collaboration. [49] Rantzau fully appreciated that the converse was also true, so long as Trotsky remained powerful – the secret military collaboration would have no effect on the policy of encouraging and helping the revolutionary movement in Germany!

The ousting of Trotsky from the War Commissariat, early in 1925, marked the definite opening of a new phase in Soviet foreign policy, acutely summed up by Isaac Deutscher: ‘In the Leninist period diplomacy had been, as it were, an auxiliary detachment of the Comintern. That relationship was to be reversed.’ [50]

* * *


1. The decree was published in Izvestia of 26 December, and is reproduced in J. Degras, Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1 (1951), p. 22.

2. David Dallin, Russia and Postwar Europe (1944), p. 146, n4. See also W.H. Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, Volume 1 (1935), p. 404, and E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3 (1953), p. 46.

3. W. Hard, Raymond Robins’ Own Story (1920), p. 100; Degras, Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1, pp. 56–57.

4. Cited in Adolf Joffe, Reminiscences, in V. Astrov (ed.), Illustrated History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 2 (1928), p. 507. See also J.T. Wheeler-Bennett, Brest-Litovsk: The Forgotten Peace (1938), p. 261.

5. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3, p. 72; Degras, Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1, p. 61.

6. M. Philips Price, Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution (1921), p. 318.

7. ‘For a proper understanding of this policy of zigzagging and manoeuvring, one must bear in mind that simultaneously with it the Lenin government was transforming its Berlin Embassy into a leading centre of communist activity in Germany, an effort directed against the very government whose military intervention in Russia Lenin was so anxious to secure.’ (Dallin, Russia and Postwar Europe, pp. 68-69). See also Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3, p. 83.

8. Degras, Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1, p. 101.

9. Ibid., p. 222.

10. Ibid., p. 344.

11. N.N. Popov, Outline History of the CPSU, Part 2 (1935), p. 101.

12. L.D. Trotsky, My Life (1930), pp. 389–92. See also the chapter The Polish War in K. Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin (1929).

13. L.D. Trotsky, Stalin (1947), pp. 266–68.

14. L.D. Trotsky, Between Red and White (1922), p. 86.

15. J. Degras, Communist International Documents, 1919–22 (1956), p. 216; L.D. Trotsky, Letter to Comrades Cachin and Frossard; Speech to Second Congress of Young Communist International, 14 July 1921, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume 1 (1945), pp. 162, 305–06.

16. L. Fischer, introduction to second printing (1950) of The Soviets in World Affairs, Volume 1, p. xv.

17. Degras, Communist International Documents, 1919–22, pp. 380–81.

18. K. Radek, The International Outlook, speech of 15 June 1923 (Communist Party of Great Britain, 1923), p. 19.

19. Izvestia, 18 May 1922, quoted in L. Kochan, Russia and the Weimar Republic (1954), p. 55.

20. Degras, Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1, p. 320.

21. A. Joffe, The Treaty of Rapallo, in Ot Genui do Gaagi (From Genoa to the Hague) (Moscow 1925), p. 32.

22. Degras, Communist International Documents, 1919 22, p. 347.

23. N. Bukharin, Draft Programme of the Comintern, Labour Monthly, February 1923, p. 91.

24. N. Bukharin, Letter to Suvorin, Izvestia, 11 January 1923, partially quoted in Kochan, Russia and the Weimar Republic, p. 67.

25. E. Preobrazhensky, Ot NEPa k Sotsializmu (From NEP to Socialism) (Moscow 1922), pp. 114, 119–20, 134ff.

26. L.D. Trotsky, ‘Contradictions’ in Soviet Policy, 3 November 1922, translated in Communist Review, December 1922. Cf. Theodore Rothstein’s comparison, in Pravda, 12 March 1924, of the task of Soviet diplomacy to that of communists in bourgeois parliaments – to expose the bourgeoisie and to educate and arouse the masses.

27. Degras, Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy, Volume 1, p. 421.

28. Ibid., p. 376.

29. Quoted in Kochan, Russia and the Weimar Republic, p. 87.

30. Quoted in Fischer, The Soviets in World Affairs, Volume 1, p. 457.

31. L.D. Trotsky, Kak vooruzhalas revolyutsia (How the Revolution Armed Itself), Volume 3, Part 2 (Moscow 1923–25), pp. 143–44.

32. Ibid., pp. 160–71.

33. V.I. Lenin, ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, Selected Works (English edition), Volume 10 (1938), pp. 117–18.

34. Degras, CI Documents ..., p. 98.

35. Ibid., p. 255.

36. Ibid., p. 368.

37. E.H. Carr, The Interregnum (1954), pp. 159–60, 177ff.

38. R. Fischer, Stalin and German Communism (1948), p. 199.

39. L.D. Trotsky, Young People, Study Politics, Sochinenia (Works), Volume 21 (Moscow 1925–27); May Day in the West and in the East, Zapad i Vostok (West and East) (Moscow 1924), p. 47.

40. L.D. Trotsky, Through What Stage Are We Passing?, Zapad i Vostok, p. 109.

41. L.D. Trotsky, We and the East, June 10, 1924, Zapad i Vostok, p. 105.

42. E.H. Carr, German-Soviet Relations (1952), pp. 57ff., and The Bolshevik Revolution, Volume 3, p. 362; also V.N. Ipatiev, The Life of a Chemist (1946), pp. 381ff.

43. G. Freund, The Unholy Alliance (1957), p. 210.

44. W.M. Knight-Patterson, Germany from Defeat to Conquest (1945), p. 400.

45. Goering to Śmigły-Rydz, February 1937, in Polish White Book (1939), pp. 36–38.

46. G. Hilger, The Incompatible Allies (1953), p. 124.

47. E. Wollenberg, The Red Army (1940), p. 237.

48. Hilger, The Incompatible Allies, p. 213.

49. Freund, The Unholy Alliance, p. 195.

50. I. Deutscher, Stalin (1951), p. 392.

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