David North
Perestroika versus Socialism: Stalinism and the Restoration of Capitalism in the USSR

Soviet Foreign Policy: From Lenin to Gorbachev

The foreign policy of the Soviet government, like that of all other regimes in the world, arises organically out of the material interests of the ruling social elite, and, therefore, is a continuation of its domestic policy. Indeed, it is in the sphere of foreign policy that the fundamental interests and historic aims of the bureaucracy find their most concentrated and clear-cut expression. From this objective standpoint, the foreign policy of Mikhail Gorbachev is inseparably linked with the program of capitalist restoration that is being pursued by the Stalinist bureaucracy under the banner of perestroika. While the bureaucracy seeks to systematically undermine the state property relations within the Soviet Union, its foreign policy is aimed at integrating the USSR economically into the structure of world capitalism and its international division of labor.

The perspective of world socialist revolution proclaimed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 was long ago abandoned by the leadership of the Soviet Union. There is no historical and political lie more grotesque and absurd than the claims of bourgeois journalists and academics that the foreign policy of the USSR, at least until Gorbachev, has been based upon the revolutionary principles of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The emergence of the bureaucracy as a politically-conscious social tendency hostile to the Soviet proletariat found its initial expression as early as 1924 in the repudiation of the essential link, upon which Lenin had always insisted, between the development of socialism within the USSR and the victory of the international proletariat over world imperialism. The overthrow of the bourgeois Provisional Government by the Russian working class was seen by the Bolshevik Party as only the opening shot of the world socialist revolution. The leaders of the Bolshevik Party were convinced that the survival of the Soviet Union, not to mention the construction of socialism, depended upon the extension of the proletarian revolution beyond the borders of the first workers’ state.

In the years following the October 1917 victory, the Bolsheviks called upon the Russian working class to hold out against imperialist attacks until the proletariat of one or more major capitalist countries in Western Europe overthrew their own ruling class. Not only would such a victory put an end to the physical isolation and capitalist encirclement of the Soviet Union; it would provide the necessary material foundations for overcoming the legacy of backwardness inherited by the Bolsheviks from the tsarist past.

The Bolsheviks hoped that their victory in Russia would be duplicated in other European countries, especially Germany, where hatred of the imperialist war was producing a revolutionary mood among the masses. However, in the absence of revolutionary parties comparable to that which had existed in the Russia of 1917, the first great wave of revolutionary struggles in Germany and Hungary was crushed in early 1919. Even as these early revolutionary battles were unfolding, the Bolsheviks were already concentrating their efforts on the building of the Third (Communist) International, whose founding congress was held in March 1919.

The purpose of the Communist International (also known as the Comintern) was to elaborate the strategy and tactics of the world socialist revolution and to train the international general staff that was to lead it. For the Bolsheviks, the fate and destiny of the Russian Revolution were indissolubly connected with the development of the Communist International and the victory of the working class in the main centers of imperialism in Western Europe. As Leon Trotsky, who was then the supreme military commander of the Red Army, wrote at the conclusion of the First Congress of the Communist International.

“The dictatorship of the Russian working class will be able to finally entrench itself and to develop into a genuine, all-sided socialist construction only from the hour when the European working class frees us from the economic yoke and especially the military yoke of the European bourgeoisie, and, having overthrown the latter, comes to our assistance with its organization and its technology. Concurrently, the leading revolutionary role will pass over to the working class with the greater economic and organizational power. If today the center of the Third International lies in Moscow—and of this we are profoundly convinced—then on the morrow this center will shift westward: to Berlin, to Paris, to London. However joyously the Russian proletariat has greeted the representatives of the world working class within the Kremlin walls, it will with an even greater joy send its representatives to the Second Congress of the Communist International in one of the Western European capitals. For a World Communist Congress in Berlin or Paris would signify the complete triumph of the proletarian revolution in Europe and consequently throughout the world” (Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 1 [London: New Park Publications, 1973], pp. 86-87).

This internationalist conception animated all aspects of Bolshevik policy during the early years of the Russian Revolution and remained unchallenged until after Lenin’s death in January 1924. However, the development of the Thermidorian reaction against the October Revolution, materially based on the rapidly growing and increasingly powerful bureaucracy in the state and party apparatus, produced a drastic change in the international policy of the Soviet Union.

Introduced by Stalin and Bukharin in the autumn of 1924, the theory of “socialism in one country” politically expressed the fact that the bureaucracy’s defense of its material privileges within the state boundaries of the USSR no longer coincided with the interests of the international working class and its struggle against world imperialism. For the growing mass of Soviet bureaucrats striving for social privileges in a national environment of mass poverty, socialism in one country simply meant, as Trotsky once explained, “Not everything for the world revolution—what about something for us too!”

Thus, this theory paved the way for a dramatic shift in the orientation and aims of Soviet diplomacy. Its strategic axis became essentially nationalist: in the elaboration of foreign policy, the criteria of defending the material privileges of the bureaucracy within the state boundaries of Soviet Russia replaced the international criteria of the struggle for world socialism. The main goal of Soviet diplomacy became the avoidance of an imperialist invasion of the USSR.

This new axis of Soviet foreign policy had a devastating impact on the role of the Comintern. From 1924 on, the bureaucracy’s struggle against the Left Opposition within the Russian Communist Party was supplemented with a full- scale purge of opponents and potential opponents of the Stalinists inside the Comintern. The bureaucratization of the Communist International gradually converted what had been a revolutionary world party into an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. Rather than the revolutionary overthrow of their own national bourgeoisie, the chief task of sections of the Communist International, now full of hand-picked Stalinist functionaries, became the defense of the USSR against imperialist intervention. In practice this meant that the political line of Comintern sections was determined by the immediate requirements of Soviet diplomacy.

While Lenin was alive, Soviet foreign policy did not preclude negotiations and agreements with imperialist states. However, the agreements signed by the official representatives of the Soviet state placed no obligations upon the Communist parties operating within the country with which a treaty had been concluded. The local Communist parties retained complete freedom of revolutionary action against the national ruling class regardless of the treaty signed by its national government and the Soviet Union. Indeed, in those countries where the local Communist Party was represented in the national parliament, it was expected that the parliamentary delegate would cast a principled vote against the treaty as an expression of his party’s revolutionary opposition to the ruling capitalist regime.

But this principled relation between the tactical initiatives undertaken by Soviet diplomats to counteract the encirclement of the USSR and the revolutionary policies of the Communist International came to an end with its political subordination to the Stalinist bureaucracy. During the initial stages of the Stalinization of the Comintern in the latter half of the 1920s, the Soviet bureaucracy’s efforts to “neutralize” the imperialists assumed the form of replacing revolutionary policy with opportunist maneuvers aimed at winning allies for the USSR from within the camp of the class enemy. This was the “strategy” which underlay the formation of the Anglo-Russian Committee in 1925-26 and the alliance with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang in 1926-27. In the first instance, the British Communist Party was compelled to solidarize itself with right-wing trade union bureaucrats who were being promoted as “friends” of the USSR. In the case of China, the young Communist Party, already in the leadership of thousands of workers, was ordered to submit to the discipline of the bourgeois nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who was being wooed by Stalin.

The alliance with the right-wing bureaucrats of the TUC led directly to the defeat of the British General Strike in 1926. The alliance with Chiang ended, as Trotsky had predicted, with the crushing of the Chinese proletariat and the virtual annihilation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1927-28. In assessing the causes of the defeat of the Chinese and British working class, Trotsky exposed its political source in the opportunist policies that flowed inexorably from the theory of socialism in one country:

“The contradiction between the USSR and the capitalist world is a fundamental one. There is no escape from it by way of maneuvers. By means of clear and candidly acknowledged concessions to capital, and by utilizing the contradictions between its various sections, the breathing spell can be extended and time gained, but even this, only under certain historical conditions, and by no means under any and all circumstances. It is gross self-deception to believe that the international bourgeoisie can be ‘neutralized’ until the construction of socialism, that is, that the fundamental contradictions can be overcome with the aid of a maneuver.

“Such self-deception may cost the Soviet republic its head. Only the international proletarian revolution can liberate us from the fundamental contradiction” (Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin [New York: Pathfinder, 1972], p. 137).

The attempt of Stalin to overcome the disastrous consequences of his opportunist maneuvers in Britain, China and other countries (including the United States) with a massive dose of ultraleft adventurism led directly to the victory of the Nazis over the German working class in January 1933. From having demanded the most unprincipled alliances with reactionary bureaucrats, middle class radicals and bourgeois nationalists, the ultra-leftist program of the so-called Third Period, adopted in 1928 at the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, declared that no form of political collaboration between the Communist parties and the mass Social Democratic organization was permissible, even for the physical defense of the working class against the threat of fascism. In Germany, this policy simply split the forces of the working class and enabled Hitler to come to power.

Following the German catastrophe, the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy underwent a further reactionary modification. Faced with the reality of a fascist regime in Germany, for which the policies of Stalin were chiefly responsible, the Soviet bureaucracy sought to save its neck by presenting itself to the democratic imperialists of Western Europe and the United States as their loyal ally in defense of the imperialist status quo against the ambitions of Hitler. As the Soviet Union entered the imperialist League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations), the Communist International, at its seventh congress in 1935, proclaimed as its strategic goal not the international overthrow of capitalism, but the defense of bourgeois democracy against fascism. The program of class collaboration formally replaced that of social revolution. The sections of the Communist International devoted themselves to the establishment of “antifascist” popular front alliances with the supposedly “democratic” wing of the bourgeoisie—on the basis of the defense of bourgeois property. The application of this program meant that the Stalinist parties consciously and systematically suppressed and sabotaged the struggle of the proletariat against the national bourgeoisie. In return for these treacherous favors, the bourgeoisie—or so the Stalinists hoped—would respond favorably to the Soviet bureaucracy’s diplomatic overtures.

Having reduced the Communist parties into nothing more than appendages of the Soviet bureaucracy, the Stalinist regime viewed the struggles of the international working class as chips to be bargained over with the international bourgeoisie. To prove its devotion to the international capitalist order and thereby convince British and French imperialism to enter into an alliance with the USSR, the Soviet bureaucracy did everything in its power to ensure the defeat of the Spanish Revolution between 1936 and 1939. Failing to obtain this diplomatic breakthrough, Stalin then signed the infamous Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler in August 1939. As part of this deal, German communists living in exile in the USSR were handed back to Hitler.

For two years, Stalin faithfully observed the provisions of the agreement; and even in countries occupied by Hitler’s army, the local Communist parties opposed the organization of working class resistance to the fascist terror. Only after the Nazis repudiated the Non-Aggression Pact with the June 1941 invasion of the USSR did Stalin once again revive the cause of “antifascism.” The Stalinist parties immediately swung over to the side of democratic imperialism and sought to outdo even the bourgeois parties in their loud-mouthed patriotic blather. In 1943 the Communist International was officially dissolved.

As World War II was ending, the Soviet bureaucracy entered into agreements with the allied imperialists over the postwar organization of Europe. In return for imperialist recognition of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, the Kremlin agreed to the defense of capitalist rule in Western Europe. Under conditions in which the bourgeoisie was politically discredited and impotent in Italy, France and Germany, the Stalinists opposed any attempt at a seizure of power by the working class. Unable to prevent civil war in Greece, the Soviet bureaucracy stood by and allowed Anglo- American imperialism to crush the working class.

The cold war propaganda of the imperialists notwithstanding, the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy remained fundamentally counterrevolutionary in the aftermath of World War II. Not only did it consider revolutionary struggles by the international working class contrary to the pragmatic needs of its diplomatic maneuverings with the imperialists; the Stalinists desperately feared the political and psychological impact of a revolutionary uprising by any section of the international proletariat upon the Soviet working class. Thus, the Soviet bureaucracy sought to suppress the independent initiative of the working class. This is proven, rather than contradicted, by the means employed by the Kremlin in Eastern Europe. Even when the strategic interests of the Soviet bureaucracy required the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the nationalization of the productive forces, as in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the Stalinists acted to preempt the development of a genuine socialist revolution. Regimes with the character of a police state were created throughout Eastern Europe.

The theory of peaceful coexistence unveiled by the Soviet bureaucracy after the death of Stalin was, in essence, the continuation of the program of socialism in one country—only slightly altered to take into account the sphere of influence granted by the imperialists to the USSR at the end of World War II. Soviet foreign policy was centered on the defense of the postwar arrangements.

Despite the counterrevolutionary nature of Soviet foreign policy, there remained—notwithstanding the subjective wishes of the bureaucracy—deep-rooted and fundamental antagonisms between the imperialists and the USSR. Imperialism never has and never will reconcile itself to the overthrow of capitalist property relations in the former empire of the Russian tsar. As a world system, imperialism cannot accept that it is denied the direct exploitation of the human and material resources that are to be found on one-sixth the surface of the globe. No matter how many treaties it signs with the USSR, the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union remains a fundamental strategic goal of imperialism.

But in countering the imperialist threat, the Soviet bureaucracy has been concerned above all with defending its own privileges. These privileges have been, by virtue of the revolutionary origins of the Soviet Union, bound up with the forms of property created in October 1917. Thus, insofar as the bureaucracy has regarded the state property relations that exist within the USSR as the necessary material foundation of its social privileges, it has been compelled to defend those forms of property against imperialist provocations and attacks.

However, it is precisely this conditional and limited character of the bureaucracy’s allegiance to the nationalized property that accounts for the dramatic changes that are now taking place in Soviet foreign policy under Gorbachev.

During the past three years, decisive steps have been taken by Gorbachev to promote private ownership of the productive forces. The bureaucracy is ever more openly identifying its interests with the development of Soviet cooperatives organized along entirely capitalist lines. Thus, to the extent that the bureaucracy’s own privileges are no longer bound up with, but hostile to, the forms of state property, its relations with world imperialism must undergo a corresponding and significant change. The principal goal of Soviet foreign policy becomes less and less the defense of the USSR against imperialist attack, but rather the mobilization of imperialist support—political and economic—for the realization of the domestic goals of perestroika, that is, the development of capitalist property relations within the Soviet Union. Thus, the counterrevolutionary logic of the Stalinist theory of socialism in one country finds its ultimate expression in the development of a foreign policy aimed at undermining Soviet state property and reintroducing capitalism within the USSR itself.

We have already seen how Gorbachev and his associates have sought to justify the pro-capitalist policies of perestroika on the basis of a “new concept of socialism,” which ideologically legitimizes private property and glorifies bourgeois democracy. In the sphere of foreign policy as well, the changes that have been introduced over the last three years have required definite ideological alterations. The application of perestroika to foreign policy is simply incompatible with the old formal lip service which the Stalinists have paid until recently to the struggle against imperialism.

The chief responsibility for elaborating a new theoretical basis for Soviet foreign policy has fallen to Politburo member Vadim Medvedev, who has tackled this task with the same ideological shamelessness that he has displayed in his treatment of property forms and the nature of the state. In his interview with Kommunist, Medvedev sought to justify the transformation from the revolutionary perspective upon which Soviet foreign policy was originally based to those now being pursued by Gorbachev.

“In the early years following the October Revolution the general upsurge of the revolutionary movement created the impression that the world was ‘on the threshold of a global proletarian revolution,’ The imminent world revolution was then seen as the spread of the Soviet system around the world. The Manifesto of the Second Comintern Congress said that the Comintern ‘is a party of the revolutionary rebellion of the international proletariat.’

“But in November 1920 Lenin came to the conclusion that it was impossible to settle the historical dispute between the two social systems by revolution. The concept of the New Economic Policy he formulated afterwards was inextricably linked with the idea of making the political principle of peaceful coexistence ‘a fundamental law of our epoch.’”

According to Medvedev, Lenin’s repudiation of the revolutionary conceptions that had governed his political life for more than 30 years came as a result of his sudden realization of the possibility of long-term and enduring economic collaboration between the Soviet Union and the capitalist countries. “Lenin considered peaceful coexistence as active cooperation between the two systems, which included not only trade, but also the creation of concessions and joint companies, the introduction of a convertible currency and cooperative search for solutions to global problems of that period, such as internationalization of railways” (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, 15 February 1989).

Medvedev’s presentation of Lenin’s “evolution” is an outright falsification. In November 1920—the very month during which Lenin supposedly became aware of the futility of revolution and became a convert to peaceful coexistence—he spoke out repeatedly and forcefully on the irreconcilable antagonism between the Soviet Union and imperialism. He especially stressed that agreements between the USSR and the imperialist powers, such as the granting of concessions to capitalist firms, did not mitigate, let alone eliminate, the hostility between them.

A review of Lenin’s theoretical work in November 1920 gives no sign that the leader of the October Revolution was preoccupied with pacifist soul-searching. On the contrary, his writings leave no doubt that Lenin remained the incorrigible strategist of world socialist revolution.

On November 3, 1920, Lenin addressed the All-Russia Conference of Political Education Workers of Gubernia and Uyezd Education Departments. His speech was devoted to elaborating the principles upon which the education of the proletariat had to be based.

“We are living in an historic period of struggle against the world bourgeoisie, which is far stronger than we are,” Lenin explained. “We must inculcate in the working people the realization that it is impossible and inexcusable to stand aside in the proletariat’s struggle, which is now spreading more and more to all capitalist countries in the world, and to stand aside in international politics. An alliance of all the world’s powerful capitalist countries against Soviet Russia—such is the real basis of international politics today” (Collected Works, vol. 31 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966], pp. 365-66).

One day later, on November 4, 1920, Lenin wrote a letter to members of the Italian Socialist Party in which he urged them to conduct a ruthless struggle against centrists like Serrati who opposed and undermined the revolutionary mobilization of the working class.

“Comrades, workers of Italy, do not forget the lessons of the history of all revolutions, the lessons of Russia and Hungary in 1917-20. Great battles, great difficulties and great sacrifices await the proletariat of Italy. Victory over the bourgeoisie, the assumption of power by the proletariat and the consolidation of the Soviet Republic in Italy all depend on the outcome of these battles, and on the solidarity, discipline and devotion of the masses of the workers....

“The toiling and exploited masses of Italy will follow the revolutionary proletariat. It will prove victorious in the end, for its cause is that of the workers of the whole world, and there is no way to avoid the continuation of the present imperialist wars, the advent of the new imperialist wars that are being prepared, and the horrors of capitalist slavery and oppression, otherwise than in a Soviet Workers’ Republic” (Ibid., pp. 390-91).

On November 6, 1920, Lenin delivered a speech at a joint plenum of the Moscow Soviet of Workers, Peasants and Red Army Deputies. Celebrating the third anniversary of the October Revolution, Lenin recalled the perspectives upon which the overthrow of the Russian bourgeoisie had been based. “We knew at that time that our victory would be a lasting one only when our cause had triumphed the world over, and so when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution” (Ibid., p. 397).

While savoring the great victories that had been won by the Russian proletariat, Lenin sounded a note of caution: “We should not forget that we have won no more than half of the victory. We have won because we have been able to hold out against states that are stronger than we are, and moreover have joined forces with our emigre exploiters—the landowners and capitalists. We have always known and shall never forget that ours is an international cause, and until the revolution takes place in all lands, including the richest and most highly civilized ones, our victory will be only a half-victory, perhaps still less” (Ibid., p. 399).

A little more than two weeks later, on November 21, 1920, Lenin addressed the Moscow Gubernia Conference of the Russian Communist Party on the “Foreign and Domestic Position and the Tasks of the Party.” In this speech, he surveyed the achievements of the October Revolution and again insisted on the essential link between the future of Soviet Russia and the world revolution. “For victory to be lasting, we must achieve the victory of the proletarian revolution in all, or at any rate in several, of the main capitalist countries” (Ibid., p. 411).

Lenin acknowledged that the rapid victory of the Western European proletariat which the Bolsheviks had expected in the aftermath of the October Revolution had not been realized; but he explained that the Russian proletariat had been able to hold out against the counterrevolution because of the deep divisions among the imperialist powers, as well as their internal problems. Having won a respite from a military attack by the imperialists, Soviet Russia was in a position to develop trade relations with its divided enemies, exploiting inter-imperialist rivalries to the advantage of its economic development.

On November 26, 1920, speaking at a meeting of cells’ secretaries of the Moscow Organization of the RCP, Lenin attacked the idea that the development of economic relations between Soviet Russia and the imperialist countries signified the lessening of class antagonisms. “Concessions do not mean peace; they too are a kind of warfare, only in another form, one that is to our advantage. Previously war was waged with the aid of tanks, cannon and the like, which hindered our work; the war will now be conducted on the economic front” (Ibid., p. 432).

At a speech delivered at a meeting of Moscow party activists, Lenin expanded on the significance of the economic relations which Soviet Russia hoped to establish with the imperialists. He explained the considerations which underlay the proposal to offer concessions to the imperialists:

“From the political point of view, the fundamental thing in the question of concessions—and here there are both political and economic considerations—is a rule we have not only assimilated in theory, but have also applied in practice, a rule which will remain fundamental with us for a long time until socialism finally triumphs all over the world: we must take advantage of the antagonisms and the contradictions that exist between the two imperialisms, the two groups of capitalist states, and play them off against each other. Until we have conquered the whole world, and as long as we are economically and militarily weaker than the capitalist world, we must stick to the rule that we must be able to take advantage of the antagonisms and contradictions existing among the imperialists” (Ibid., pp. 438-39).

Dissatisfied with Pravda’s “poorly reported” presentation of his November 26 explanation of the implications of economic relations with imperialism, Lenin again stressed that trade and concessions did not mean peaceful coexistence between Soviet Russia and imperialism:

“It would, of course, be a great mistake to think that concessions imply peace. Nothing of the kind. Concessions are nothing but a new form of warfare. Europe waged war on us, and now the war is shifting to a new sphere....

“We shall get a tremendous economic gain from concessions. Of course, when their dwelling areas are created they will bring capitalist customs along with them and will try to demoralize the peasantry. We must be on the alert and exercise our communist, counter-influence at every step. That too is a kind of war, a duel between two methods, two political and economic systems—the communist and the capitalist....

“That, too, will be a war in which we will not yield an inch. This war will be to our advantage in every respect; the transition from the old war to this new one will also be of advantage, to say nothing of the fact that there is a certain indirect guarantee of peace. At the meeting which was so poorly reported in Pravda, I said that we had passed from war to peace, but that we had not forgotten that war will return. While capitalism and socialism exist side by side, they cannot live in peace: one or the other will ultimately triumph—the last obsequies will be observed either for the Soviet Republic or for world capitalism” (Ibid., pp. 456-57).

Lenin returned to this question on December 21, 1920 in his report on trade concessions to the party faction at the eighth congress of the Soviets. Concessions were essential, he explained, in order to strengthen Soviet Russia in preparation for the next stage of the imperialists’ military onslaught: “We must seize the opportunity and bend every effort to achieve trade relations even at the cost of maximum concessions, for we cannot for a moment believe in lasting trade relations with the imperialist powers; the respite will be temporary. The experience of the history of revolutions and great conflicts teaches us that wars, a series of wars, are inevitable. The existence of a Soviet Republic alongside of capitalist countries—a Soviet Republic surrounded by capitalist countries—is so intolerable to the capitalists that they will seize any opportunity to resume the war” (Ibid., p. 472).

It would be possible to introduce many more quotations to refute Gospodin (Mr.) Medvedev. But that should hardly be necessary. It should already be clear to the intelligent and honest reader that the conception of “peaceful coexistence” between the Soviet Union and world imperialism has absolutely nothing in common with the teachings of Lenin.