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Leon Trotsky 19390621 The Riddle of the USSR

Leon Trotsky: The Riddle of the USSR

June 21, 1939

[Writings of Leon Trotsky, Vol 11, 1938-1938, New York ²1974, p. 350-360]

Two features are characteristic of the present international policies of the great powers. First, the absence of any system or consistency in their actions. Particularly fantastic oscillations have been exhibited recently by that country which has historically been the model of ponderous stability, namely Great Britain. At the time of the Munich agreement, in September of last year, Chamberlain proclaimed "a new era of peace" based on the cooperation of four European powers. The unofficial slogan of the Conservatives in those days was: "give Germany a free hand in the East." Today all the efforts of the British government are concentrated on concluding an agreement with Moscow — against Germany.

The London stock exchange, which at the time welcomed the Munich agreement with an upward movement in stock prices, is now adapting the state of its nerves to the course of the Anglo-Soviet negotiations. France obediently follows England in these zigzags: there is nothing else it can do. The constant element in Hitler's policy is its aggressive dynamism, but that is all. No one knows where Germany will strike next. It is possible that at this moment Hitler himself does not know. The ups and downs of the "Neutrality" Act in the United States illustrate the same theme.

The second feature of international politics, closely connected with the first, is that no one believes what anyone else says or even what he himself says. Any treaty presupposes a minimum of mutual trust, and a military alliance even more so. But the conditions of the Anglo-Soviet talks show only too clearly no such confidence exists there. This is not at all a question of abstract morality; it is simply that the present objective situation of the world powers, for all of whom the globe has become too small, excludes any possibility of a consistent policy that can predict the future and be relied upon.

Each government is trying to insure itself against at least two eventualities. Hence the appalling duplicity of world politics, its insincerity and its convulsiveness. The more inexorably and tragically emerges the general forecast that mankind is advancing toward a new catastrophe, with its eyes closed, the more difficult does it become to make detailed forecasts as to what England or Germany will do tomorrow, which side Poland will take, or what position Moscow will adopt.

There is especially little data for an answer to the last question. The Soviet press scarcely bothers with international politics. Precisely why Mr. Strang came to Moscow and what he is doing there are no business of the Soviet citizens. Dispatches from abroad are usually printed on the back page and usually are given a "neutral" presentation. The conclusion of the Italo-German alliance or the fortification of the Aland Islands is reported as if these e-vents happened on Mars.

This sham objectivity serves to leave the Kremlin's hands free. The world press more than once in the past has written about the "impenetrability" of Soviet aims and the "unpredictability" of the Kremlin's methods. We shall get nearer to solving the "impenetrable” enigma the more decisively we replace speculations about Stalin's subjective sympathies and antipathies by an objective evaluation of the interests of the Soviet oligarchy which Stalin merely personifies.

Mainsprings of the Kremlin’s Policy

Nobody "wants” war and many, above that, "hate” it. This only means that everyone would prefer to gain his ends by peaceful means. But that does not at all mean that there will be no war. The ends, alas, are contradictory, and do not permit reconciliation. Stalin wants war less than anyone since he is more afraid of it than anyone. There are sufficient reasons why. The "purges,” monstrous both in scale and methods, reflect the unbearable tension in relations between the Soviet bureaucracy and the people. The flower of the Bolshevik Party, the leaders of the economy and the diplomatic service, have been exterminated. The flower of the general staff, the heroes and idols of the army and navy, have been exterminated. Stalin carried out this purge not as the vain caprice of an oriental despot; he was compelled to do it by his struggle to preserve power. This must be thoroughly understood.

If we follow the life of the USSR from day today in the Soviet press, reading attentively between the lines, it becomes perfectly clear that the ruling stratum feels it is the object of universal hatred. Among the popular masses the threat runs: "When war comes, we'll show them." The bureaucracy trembles for its recently won positions. Caution is the predominant characteristic of their leader, especially in the field of world affairs. The spirit of daring is utterly alien to him. He does not stop, it is true, at the use of force on an unprecedented scale, but only on condition that he is assured in advance of impunity.

On the other hand, he easily resorts to concessions and retreats when he is uncertain of the outcome of a struggle. Japan would never have got involved in a war with China if it had not known beforehand that Moscow would not take advantage of a favorable pretext to intervene. At the party congress in March of this year Stalin openly declared for the first time that economically the Soviet Union is still very far behind the capitalist countries. He had to make this admission not only in order to explain the low standard of living of the masses but also to justify his retreats in the field of foreign policy.

Stalin is prepared to pay very dearly, not to say any price, for peace. Not because he "hates' war but because he is mortally afraid of its consequences.

From this standpoint it is not difficult to evaluate the comparative benefits for the Kremlin of the two alternatives: agreement with Germany or alliance with the "democracies.” Friendship with Hitler would mean immediate removal of the danger of war on the Western front, and thereby a great reduction of the danger of war on the Far Eastern front. An alliance with the democracies would mean only the possibility of receiving aid in the e-vent of war. Of course, if nothing is left but to fight, then it is more advantageous to have allies than to remain isolated. But the basic task of Stalin's policy is not to create the most favorable conditions in the event of war, but to avoid war. This is the hidden meaning of the frequent statements by Stalin, Molotov, and Voroshilov that the USSR "needs no allies."

True, it is now being declared that a reconstitution of the Triple Entente is a sure means of preventing war. No one, however, explains why the Entente failed to secure this result twenty-five years ago. The establishment of the League of Nations was motivated precisely by the argument that otherwise the division of Europe into two irreconcilable camps would inevitably lead to a new war.

Now, as a result of the experience of "collective security," the diplomats have come to the conclusion that the splitting of Europe into two irreconcilable camps is capable of … preventing war. Believe this who can! The Kremlin, anyway, does not believe it. Agreement with Hitler would mean insuring the border of the USSR on condition that Moscow cut itself off from European politics. Stalin would like nothing better. Alliance with the democracies would insure the borders of the USSR only to the same extent that it insured all other borders in Europe, making the' USSR their guarantor and thereby eliminating the possibility of Soviet neutrality. To hope that a reconstitution of the Triple Entente would be capable of perpetuating the status quo, eliminating the possibility of any border being violated, would be to live in the realm of illusion. Perhaps the danger of war would, for a time, be less urgent for the USSR; but, in return, it would become immeasurably more extensive. An alliance of Moscow with London and Paris would mean for Hitler that henceforth he would have against him all three states at once, whichever border he violated. Faced with such a risk, he would most probably choose the most gigantic throw of all, that is, a campaign against the USSR. In that e-vent, the "insurance" provided by the Entente could easily be transformed into its opposite.

In all other respects too, agreement with Germany would be the best solution for the Moscow oligarchy to take. The Soviet Union could systematically supply Germany with almost all the kinds of raw materials and foodstuffs it lacks. Germany could supply the Soviet Union with machinery, industrial products, and also necessary technical advice for both general and war industry. Gripped in the vise of an agreement between these two giants, Poland, Rumania, and the Baltic states would have no choice but to renounce all thought of independent policies and to restrict themselves to the modest benefits to be derived from collaboration and transit facilities. Moscow would willingly grant Berlin full freedom in its foreign policy in all directions but one. Whoever, in these conditions, so much as mentions the "defense of the democracies" would immediately be declared by the Kremlin to be a Trotskyist, an agent of Chamberlain, a hireling of Wall Street, and-be immediately shot.

From the first day of the National Socialist regime Stalin has systematically and steadily shown his readiness for friendship with Hitler. Often this has taken the form of open declarations, more often of hints, meaningful silences, or alternating emphases, which might be unnoticed by Soviet citizens but nevertheless unfailingly got through to where they were meant to go. W. Krivitsky, former chief of Soviet intelligence in Europe, recently described the work carried on behind the scenes in this direction. Only after a series of. extremely hostile rejoinders by Hitler to this Soviet policy did the turn begin toward the League of Nations, collective security, and Popular Fronts. This new diplomatic tune, supported by the big drums, kettledrums, and saxophones of the Comintern, has become over the last few years more and more a menace to the eardrums. But every time there was a moment of quiet one could hear underneath it, softer, somewhat melancholy, but more intimate notes intended for the ears of Berchtesgaden. In this apparent duality there is an undoubted inner unity.

The entire world press drew attention to the frankness with which Stalin, in his report to the last party congress in March of this year, made advances to Germany while simultaneously hitting out at England and France as"provokers of war, used to lighting the fires with other people's hands." supplementary speech by Manuilsky on Comintern policy passed completely unnoticed, although Stalin had edited this speech too. For the first time, Manuilsky replaced the traditional demand for the freeing of all colonies by a new slogan: "the realization of the right of self-determination of peoples enslaved by the fascist states… The Comintern thereby demands free self-determination for Austria, . . the Sudetenland, . . Korea, Formosa, Abyssinia [Ethiopia]…." As regards India, Indochina, Algeria, and the other colonies of Great Britain and France, Stalin's agent confined himself to an inoffensive desire for "improvement in the position of the working masses." At the same time he demanded that the colonial peoples henceforth "subordinate" their struggle for freedom "to the interests of the defeat of fascism, the worst foe of the working people." In other words, the British and French colonies are obliged, according to the Comintern's new theory, to support the countries that rule them against Germany, Italy, and Japan.

The glaring contradiction between the two speeches is in fact a sham. Stalin took upon himself the most important part of the task: a direct offer to Hitler of an agreement against the democratic "provokers of war." To Manuilsky he entrusted the frightening of Hitler with the prospect of a rapprochement between the USSR and the democratic "provokers,'' incidentally explaining to the latter the enormous advantages for them of an alliance with the USSR: no one but the Kremlin, the old friend of oppressed peoples, could inspire the colonies with the idea that it was necessary for them to remain loyal to their democratic rulers during a war with fascism. These are the mainsprings of Kremlin policy, the unity underlying the out-ward contradictions in it. From start to finish it is determined by the interests of the ruling caste, which has abandoned all principles except the principle of self-preservation.

Hitler and the USSR

Mechanics teaches us that force is determined by mass and speed. The dynamics of Hitler's foreign policy has assured for Germany a commanding position in Europe, and to some extent in the whole world. For how long is another question. If Hitler were to restrain himself (if he could restrain himself), London would once more turn its back on Moscow. On the other hand, the reply which is hourly expected from Moscow to London's proposals depends much more on Hitler than on Stalin. If Hitler at last responds to Moscow's diplomatic advances, Chamberlain will be rebuffed. If Hitler vacillates or seems to, the Kremlin will do ah in its power to drag out the negotiations. Stalin will sign a treaty with England only if he is convinced that agreement with Hitler is out of his reach.

Dimitrov, the secretary of the Comintern, carrying out Stalin's commands, announced soon after the Munich agreement a precise calendar of Hitler's next campaigns of conquest. Hungary would be subjected in the spring of 1939; in the autumn of the same year, Poland would be invaded. Yugoslavia's turn would come in the following year. In the autumn of 1940 Hitler would invade Rumania and Bulgaria. In the spring of 1941 blows would be struck at France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Switzerland. Finally, in the autumn of 1941, Germany intended to begin its offensive against the Soviet Union.

It is possible that this information -in less precise form, of course — was obtained by Soviet intelligence. But it is also possible that it was a product of pure speculation, having the aim of showing that Germany intended first to crush its Western neighbors, and only after-ward to turn its guns against the Soviet Union. To what extent will Hitler be guided by Dimitrov's timetable? Around this question guesses and plans are revolving in the various capitals of Europe.

The first chapter of Hitler's world plan, the creation of a broad national base plus a springboard in Czechoslovakia, has been completed. The next stage of German aggression can have two variants. Either an immediate agreement with the USSR, so as to have his hands free for the South-west and the West; in that case, plans relating to the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Urals would find their place in Hitler's third chapter. Or else — an immediate blow at the East, the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, securing the Eastern rear. In that case, the attack on the West would be the third chapter.

A firm agreement with Moscow, fully in the spirit of the Bismarck tradition, would not only mean enormous economic benefits for Germany but would also allow it to operate an active world policy. However, from the day of his accession to power, Hitler has spurned the outstretched hand of Moscow. Having crushed the German "Marxists,'' Hitler could not in the first years of his rule weaken his internal position by a rapprochement with "Marxist” Moscow. More important, though, were considerations of foreign policy. To induce England to close its eyes to Germany's illegal rearmament and violations of the Versailles treaty, Hitler had to put on a show as the defender of European culture from Bolshevik barbarism. Both of these factors have now lost a great deal of their importance. Inside Germany, the Social Democratic and Communist parties, having disgraced themselves by their shameful capitulation to the Nazis, are now a negligible quantity. In Moscow, all that remains of Marxism are some poor busts of Marx.

The creation of a new privileged stratum in the USSR and the repudiation of the policy of international revolution, reinforced by the mass extermination of revolutionaries, have enormously reduced the fear that Moscow used to inspire in the capitalist world. The volcano is extinct, the lava has turned cold. The capitalist states would, of course, now as ever, willingly facilitate the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. But they no longer regard that country as a hotbed of revolution. No need is felt any more for a leader for a crusade against the East. Hitler himself understood earlier than others the social significance of the Moscow purges and show trials, for to him, at any rate, it was no secret that neither Zinoviev, nor Kamenev, nor Rykov, nor Bukharin, nor Marshal Tukhachevsky, nor the dozens and hundreds of other revolutionaries, statesmen, diplomats, and generals were not his agents.

Hitler's need to hypnotize Downing Street with the notion of a community of interests against the USSR has ceased too, for he has received from England more than he had hoped for-everything he could possibly receive without recourse to arms. If, nevertheless, he is not meeting the Kremlin halfway, this is evidently because he is afraid of the USSR. With its 170 million people, its inexhaustible natural resources, its undoubted achievements in industrialization, the increase in its means of communication, the USSR — so Hitler thinks — would immediately overrun Poland, Rumania, and the Baltic countries, and bring its entire mass up to the borders of Germany as soon as the Third Reich was involved in a struggle for the redivision of the world. In order to be able to grab the English and French colonies, Hitler must first secure his rear, and is meditating a preventive war against the USSR.

True, the German high command knows well, from past experience, the difficulties of occupying Russia or even just the Ukraine. However, Hitler counts on the instability of the Stalin regime. A few serious defeats for the Red Army, he thinks, will suffice to bring down the Kremlin government. And since there are no organized forces in the country, and the White emigres are quite alien to the people, after Stalin’s fall chaos will reign for a long time, and this can be utilized, on the one hand, for direct economic plundering-seizure of gold reserves, removal of all kinds of raw materials, etc. — and, on the other, for a blow against the West. Uninterrupted trade relations between Germany and the USSR-today there is once again talk of the arrival in Moscow of a delegation of industrialists from Berlin — do not in themselves mean a long period of peace ahead. At best they mean that the date of the war has not yet been decided. Credits for a few hundred million marks cannot put off the war for a single hour, because in the war what is at stake is not hundreds of millions, but tens of billions, the conquest of countries and continents, a new partition of the world. Lost credits will, if necessary, be put down to petty expenses incurred in a bigger enterprise. At the same time, the offer of new credits not long before launching a war would be not a bad way of putting one's adversary off the scent. In any case, it is precisely now, at the critical moment of the Anglo-Soviet talks, that Hitler is deciding which way to direct his aggression - East or West?

Future of Military Alliances

It may seem that to distinguish between the "second" and "third" chapters in the impending German expansion is a pedantic exercise: a renewal of the Triple Entente would deprive Hitler of the opportunity to carry out his plans in stages and alternate his blows, because, regardless of where the conflict began, it would immediately spread to all Germany's borders. This idea is true, however, only in part.

Germany occupies a central position in relation to its future enemies; it can maneuver by throwing its reserves along internal operational lines in the most important directions. To the extent that the initiative in military operations will be Germany's — and at the beginning of the war it will undoubtedly be Germany's-that state will at any given moment select the main enemy to be dealt with, treating the other fronts as secondary. Unity of action between Britain, France, and the USSR could, certainly, restrict to a considerable degree the freedom of action of the German high command; and for that, of course, a tripartite alliance would be necessary. But this unity of action must be realized in fact. Mean-while, the tense struggle going on over the terms of the pact has already shown how much each of the participants is striving to preserve its own freedom of action at the expense of its future ally. If one or another member of the new Triple Entente considered it more' expedient to stand aside at the moment of danger, Hitler is quite ready to provide the juridical basis for a tearing up of the pact: for that purpose it would suffice to cover the outbreak of the war with such diplomatic maneuvers as would make it very hard to define the "aggressor"-at least from the standpoint of the member of the Triple Entente interested in clouding the issue. But even apart from this extreme case of open "betrayal" there remains the question of the extent to which the pact would be honored.

If Germany strikes at the West, Britain will immediately come to the help of France with all its forces because, there and then, the fate of Britain itself will be at stake.

The situation would be regarded quite differently, however, if Germany were to transfer its main forces to the East. Britain and France would not be interested, of course, in seeing a decisive victory by Germany over the Soviet Union, but they would have nothing against a mutual weakening of these two countries. Hitler's tasks in the East, in view of the probable resistance of Poland and Rumania, and in view of the immense distances and masses of population, are so immense that even with the most favorable course of operations for him, they would demand very great forces and considerable time.

During all this first period, which e-vents may make longer or shorter, Britain and France would enjoy comparative comfort for mobilizing, shipping British troops across the Channel, concentrating forces, and choosing the appropriate moment-leaving the Red Army to hear the whole brunt of the German attack. If the USSR should then find itself in a difficult situation, the Allies could lay down new terms for their aid, which the Kremlin could find hard to reject. When Stalin said in March at the party congress that Britain and France were interested in kindling war between Germany and the Soviet Union, so as to appear on the scene at the last moment with fresh forces as arbiter, he was not wrong.

But it is equally true that if Hitler distracts attention by making a fuss about Danzig and then strikes with his main force at the West, Moscow will want to take full advantage of its position. The border states will help it to do this, willy-nilly. A direct attack by Hitler upon Poland would, of course, quickly arouse suspicion in the USSR, and the Warsaw government would itself call on the Red Army for help. On the other hand, if Hitler marched westward or south-ward, Poland, and Rumania too, would, with the tacit approval of the Kremlin, oppose with all their might the entrance of the Red Army into their territories. The main weight of the German blow would thus be borne by France. Moscow would wait it out. However precisely the new pact might be formulated on paper, the Triple Entente would remain not only a military alliance but also a triangle of antagonistic interests. Moscow's suspicions are all the more natural since it will never succeed in setting France against Britain or Britain against France; but these countries will always find a common language for joint pressure on Moscow. Hitler can make successful use of this antagonism among the allies themselves.

But not for long. In the totalitarian camp the contradictions will break out too, a little later, perhaps, but all the more violently. Even leaving aside distant Tokyo, the Berlin-Rome "axis" seems firm and reliable only because Berlin outweighs Rome so much and Rome is directly subordinated to Berlin. This circumstance doubtlessly produces greater concord and faster action. But only within certain limits. All three members of this camp are distinguished by the extreme range of their pretensions, and their worldwide appetites will come into violent conflict long before they reach satiety. No "axis" will stand up to the burden of the coming war.

What has. been said does not, of course, deny any significance at all to international treaties and alliances, which one way or another will determine the initial positions of states in the coming war. But this significance is very limited. Once unleashed, the war will quickly outgrow the frame-work of diplomatic agreements, economic plans and military calculations. An umbrella is useful as a protection against London rain. But it cannot protect against a cyclone. Before reducing a substantial area of our planet to ruins, the cyclone of war will break not a few diplomatic umbrellas. The ''sacredness" of treaty obligations will be revealed as a trifling superstition when people begin to write amid clouds of poison gas. Sauve qui peut (every man for himself) will be the slogan of governments, nations, and classes. Treaties will prove no more stable than the governments that made them. The Moscow oligarchy in any case will not survive the war it so deeply fears. The fall of Stalin will not, however, save Hitler, who with the infallibility of a sleep-walker is being drawn toward the greatest catastrophe in history. Whether the other participants in the bloody game will gain from this is a separate question.