This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“The Soviet Union needs no foreign wars for transforming the world.”
Manuilski at Congress of Communist International, 1935.

A socialist country craves peace for development. As the life of the Soviet people grows richer and more varied, the one great dread which hangs above it is the threat of war. Soviet citizens are never subject to the illusion—most diabolical of all the contradictions of capitalism—that war may bring a feverish, blood-bought prosperity and eliminate unemployment by turning men into the pursuits of destruction. The prosperity of socialism is based on harmonious correlation of production and needs, and there is no unemployment. The Soviet world sees war as naked destruction of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even the need of preparing for war it sees as a waste of resources which might otherwise go in direct benefits to the population.

In the eighteen years of its existence, the Soviet Union has been widely recognized as a champion of peace. Even its foes admit that the USSR does not want war for the present. Yet so confused is the world’s thinking on the subject of war and peace—a confusion promoted by diplomats and statesmen—so instinctive under capitalism has become the assumption that every advancing nation must seek in the end the test of war, that the Soviet hunger for peace is at times confused either with cowardice or hypocrisy. Are they not perhaps just watchfully waiting until their economic building is accomplished, and their strength is sure? What are they doing in the League of Nations? Why are they increasing the Red Army? Do they not after all want world revolution, which world war presumably might usher in? How permanent is the Soviet wish for peace? And, even if sincere, can it be effective?

There are two ways to approach this question: by the detailed examination of Soviet history and by understanding the theory behind every Soviet action. We shall take each of these methods in turn.

Behind all Soviet action is the Marxian theory that the cause of war is neither permanent in human nature, as militarists claim, nor to be found in lack of goodwill and in the character of rulers, as idealist pacifists think. Marxists hold that war arises from class conflicts. Wars in the present period of world history, according to this analysis, arise from the struggle of capitalism to survive and grow by investment in new markets. This leads the major nations to engage first in small wars of colonial oppression, the forcing of their goods and investment upon undeveloped peoples; these lead to wars between the imperialist nations over the territories which both sides wish to exploit. A socialist commonwealth where the people own jointly their means of production and receive all the fruits of their toil, wants no expanding market for surplus profits but only equal interchange of goods which encourages peace.

A socialist world would thus attain peace permanently. But a single socialist country lives in a world of foes. Can peace be attained under these conditions? Not permanently and not with assurance, as long as capitalism survives. The capitalist world system from its nature breeds war. None the less, each specific war has specific causes, which may be studied, analyzed, hampered and delayed. Peace may be won from month to month and year to year by specific, well-considered actions, as an able engineer postpones collapse inherent in a faulty structure by accurate balancing of specific strains and stresses. This is an unstable peace, but better than none, for every curtailment of war prevents human suffering.

In applying this analysis to our present period of history, Soviet policy holds that the economic world today is one and indivisible, and that every war must affect the whole world. No fair words of politicians can keep a nation out of it; no policy of isolation can be a guarantee. For behind all those words and beneath all such policies the economic pressures inexorably act. Trade in goods of war begins to flow towards even a minor conflict and steadily the traders are drawn further in. Thus was America drawn into the World War by increasing financial commitments, till at last an American ambassador cabled from London that a panic would shake the whole United States unless American boys followed American dollars into the battles of Britain and France. When that stage occurs, no country keeps out of it; the president who “kept us out of war” turns about and marches in.

Even those nations which are technically neutral—the number of these decreases with the seriousness of the war—are involved only slightly less than those who battle. “Any war,” says Litvinoff, “sooner or later, will bring distress to all countries, both to the combatants and the non-participants. We must never forget the lesson of the World War, the consequences of which are felt to this day by combatants and neutral countries alike. The impoverishment of the whole world, the lowering of the living standards of all categories of labor, both physical and mental, unemployment when no one is sure of tomorrow, to say nothing of the collapse of cultural values, the reversion of certain countries to medieval ideas—these are the consequences of the World War which are clearly felt sixteen years after its end.”

To maintain peace is therefore a permanent policy for the Soviet Union. To maintain peace not only for itself but in the world. But peace is not to be had by expecting it. It may not even be won by refusing to fight. China refuses to fight, but gets no peace. Neither preparedness nor unpreparedness is a safeguard; unarmed and well-armed folk have alike gone to war. The only safeguard for even that partial peace possible under capitalism is clear, sincere study of the whole world situation, the choosing of a policy which prevents war or lessens it, and the backing of that policy by all available power. One must struggle for peace; it will not come otherwise. The methods change as the situations change.

For eighteen years the Soviet Union has made this struggle. “Peace, land and bread” was the slogan of the October Revolution. The hunger for peace of a war-exhausted people brought the Bolsheviks to power. Their first official act on November 8, 1917, was to propose “to all warring peoples and their governments to begin immediate negotiations for a just and democratic peace.” As an attack upon the war and to remove causes of future war, the new revolutionary government exposed and denounced the secret treaties by which England, France and Russia had agreed to redivide the world. They annulled oppressive tsarist treaties which had been enforced on Persia and Turkey, and withdrew the Russian army from Persia.

The strength of the new government was not equal to its understanding. The Entente Powers—England, France and the United States—denounced the Bolsheviks for daring to speak of peace and left their former ally to the mercy of Germany. The German general staff marched onward into a prostrate country offering the Bolsheviks “robber terms.” The position of the Soviet state was further weakened by Trotsky’s attempt to deal with advancing troops by clever phrases. He refused to sign terms but protested in the formmula: “Neither war nor peace”—an appeal to the conscience of the German people. But general staffs are not expected to have a conscience, and no Germans acted to save the Russians. The invading army marched far into the Ukraine and took possession, giving in the end worse terms than those originally offered. Trotsky’s appeal reached the consciences of idealists; I recall that it thrilled me far out in Seattle. But it was Ukrainian peasants and workers who suffered; idealist gestures are dangerous tactics in war.

If Germany offered the Bolsheviks only a robbers’ peace, their former allies gave them no peace at all. On April 5, 1918, the Japanese landed in Vladivostok; following them the English, French and American armies invaded Siberia. Allied armies landed on the Arctic coast to seize the northern part of Russia; the British grabbed Baku, oil capital of the south. Agents of the Entente incited and participated in armed uprisings of Czechoslovak prisoners of war along the Volga, leading them against the Bolshevik government. From east and west and north and south the armies of all the major capitalist powers surrounded the Revolution with an iron ring of war and blockade.

Across this iron ring the starving people of the new state sent appeal after appeal to all those governments which refused to deal with them but especially to President Wilson. Beginning on November 24, 1918, and repeating their query through Raymond Robins, head of the American Red Cross in Russia, and also by direct cables to the State Department, they offered to consider any peace terms whatever: recognition of debts, concessions of territory, control of mines and natural resources. Rather than deal in any way with Bolsheviks, Wilson and the Allied governments sitting in Versailles issued a call to all the “organized groups in Russia” to meet at the Principo Islands, a proposal which clearly presaged the dividing of Russia into spheres of influence after the style of China. The Bolsheviks were not invited, but they accepted; the other governments refused and the scheme fell through. There followed the famous trip of William Christian Bullitt to Moscow in March 1919 as President Wilson’s semi-official representative. The hard-pressed Soviet government was ready to agree to Bullitt’s proposal that it accept all financial obligations of all past Russian governments, and divide the territory of Russia among all those governments which should be in armed possession when the treaty should be signed. But the treaty was never signed; President Wilson refused to receive the report of his own envoy. Bolsheviks were made to realize that no peace can be had from the imperialist powers of earth by any backward nation. Not even the price of slavish submission buys peace for China; nor could the offer of territory and gold buy it for Russia.

Not by appeals for peace and not by offers of concessions, but by the desperate struggle and courage of the Revolutionary Red Army was peace and independence finally won. It was secured in slow stages, first cessation of battle, then trade agreements, then, much more slowly, diplomatic recognition. At each stage the strength of the new state was again and again probed and tested by a capitalist world unwilling to yield it the right to exist. Under such conditions the Soviet government stabilized its borders by granting swift recognition to the new Baltic States. Then, in the first international conference to which it was admitted, in April 1922 in Genoa, the Soviet delegate proposed a plan for strengthening general peace in Europe.

“The forces directed towards restoration of world economy will be strangled as long as above Europe and above the world hangs the threat of new wars,” said Chicherin. “The Russian delegation intends to propose a general limitation of armaments and to support any proposition which has the aim of lightening the burdens of militarism.” The Soviet representatives again agreed to recognize debts of past Russian governments but now demanded in return the right to compensation for the destruction caused to Russia by unprovoked intervention. Failing to get response to either proposal, Soviet Russia signed with Germany the famous Rapallo agreement, whereby both nations canceled the debts of the other and renewed relations on the basis of equality. This was the first gesture made by any nation to cure the wounds of the World War and to deal with vanquished Germany on a basis which set foundations for peace. Had the other nations followed this example the bitter history of Europe of the past thirteen years might have been different.

After the Genoa Conference, the Soviet struggle for peace was marked by slow but steady establishment of diplomatic relations with the major powers of the world. This in itself was an element of stability in Europe, but normal relations were still much shaken by frequent raids on Soviet embassies and consulates in many countries, conducted on shallow pretexts and accompanied by forged letters and provocatory accusations unprecedented in diplomatic history.1 Similar attacks on nations in the past have counted as causes of war. The Soviet Union responded to these attacks by steadily widening its pacts of non-aggression with minor or hard-pressed nations—Turkey first in December 1925, followed by Germany, Lithuania, Persia, Latvia, Afghanistan and others. Unlike all previous alliances and ententes, these pacts were non-exclusive. They were offered to all nations.

When the Preparatory Commission for Disarmament of the League of Nations held its fourth session on November 30, 1927, the newly invited Soviet delegation startled the world by proposing to disarm. Five years earlier Chicherin had made a similar proposition at Genoa; it went unnoticed and was soon forgotten. But Litvinoff’s statement in 1927 came from a nation which had proved its economic and political stability over a term of years. It came moreover at a time when the peoples of the world were beginning to be disillusioned by the ever-repeated fruitless conferences with which European governments sought to hide from their peoples the chaos which followed the World War.

Litvinoff broke the polite façade by suggesting actual disarmament, stating that the Soviet Government was ready to agree to total disarmament or any percentage of disarmament which the other powers would accept. He made this challenge time after time in the sight of the peoples of the world, until the constant evasion of the militarists made it apparent that no capitalist power was willing even to reduce armaments, and that the Disarmament Conference itself was little more than a mask for the old rearmament race.

As armaments grew, the Soviet Union steadily extended pacts of non-aggression and began to press for an internationally accepted “definition of the aggressor,” designed to mobilize world opinion against the provokers of war. None of the major imperialist powers was willing to accept Litvinoff’s definition, which denounced as aggression the sending of any armed forces into any other nation. A dozen or more of the smaller countries signed it; the Soviet Union began to win the post of champion of the rights of smaller powers, which it was later to expand by its participation in the League of Nations.

The will to peace of the Soviet Union and its intelligence in maneuvering to keep out of war was soon severely tested by the growing tensions in the Far East. Japan’s invasion of Manchuria has been recognized by the whole world as a violation of the League of Nations Covenant, the Washington Nine-Power Pact and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, to all of which Japan was signatory. It carried her troops to the Soviet borders and occasionally across them in forays by armed patrols which killed Soviet border guards and peasants. The most serious source of contention was the possession by the Soviet Government of the Chinese Eastern Railway, which crosses Manchuria as the shortest route to Vladivostok. Attacks by alleged bandits and arrests by Japanese military authorities put Soviet railway employees in peril hardly less than that of war. A report by the Soviet director of the road related over 3,000 cases of armed attack which had resulted in the murder of 56 people, the wounding of 825, the destruction of four kilometers of main line track and of hundreds of passenger and freight cars. On October 9, 1933, the USSR was able to publish four Japanese secret documents which discussed the “great necessity for assimilating the railway,” and made it plain that most of the attacks were inspired by Japanese military forces.

The answer of the USSR to these provocations was neither that of the strong capitalist nation which would long since have “protected its interests and citizens” by declaring war, nor was it that of a defenseless colonial nation like China, which continually submits. The Soviet Union built strong fortifications on its entire Far Eastern border, obviously of a defensive nature; and simultaneously removed a source of conflict by selling the railroad to Manchukuo at a price hardly one-fifth of the sum originally invested by the Russians. I was present in Tokyo when the sale occurred and noted the lessening of tension. “The Japanese people are for the time being convinced of our peaceful purposes; it will be some months before their militarists will be able to inflame them against us,” said a Soviet diplomat to me, making the distinction which Communists always make between people and governments. The Japanese militarists were even then laying a basis for further provocation by suggesting the purchase of Soviet Saghalin. Yet for even a temporary lessening of tension, the USSR thought it worth while to make concessions.

In September 1934 the Soviet Union entered the League of Nations, an act which startled both friend and foe. Yet it was the logical consequence of the changing conditions of Europe and the growing strength of the USSR. The Soviet Union views the League analytically rather than emotionally. What is it? What has it to give? The League is not a territory nor a state nor a super-power; still less is it an ideal or a formula which will somehow miraculously bring peace. The League is a diplomatic instrument through which a group of powers meet and come to an agreement. Its policy is decided by the powers that are in it and by the relative strength and courage of those powers.

Behind the idealistic phrases with which at different stages each participating power has veiled its use of the League, the purpose of the League changes. Wilson started it as the organization of Europe on a basis of nationality; his plan involved also “freedom of the seas.” But “freedom of the seas” meant to Britain the domination of the world by American gold instead of by the British fleet; and Europe on a basis of nationality appalled Clemenceau, who knew quite well that there are twice as many Germans as French in Europe, and that “the interests of France” demand the splitting up of the Germans into minorities among many nations. The League, with America out, became the arena where Britain and France struggled for control of Europe, France wishing to crush Germany utterly and Britain willing to help Germany expand slightly. as a balance against France. Wall Street helped Britain by the Dawes and Young plans of reparations, scaling them down to “Germany’s capacity to pay,” i.e., the amount which it was thought German capitalists could squeeze from industrious German workers for several generations without revolt. Germany came into the League, hailed by phrases on the “United States of Europe,” which meant to the Soviet Union the united attempt of world capitalism to placate Germany for the Versailles deprivations by financing her in a drive to the East.

But Dawes guessed wrong. The world economic crisis broke Germany’s “capacity to pay” and ability to wait. Japan and Germany both left the League to seek expansion by their own armed might. The war danger increased but the League itself became, by their disaffection, an organization of powers which had more to lose than to gain from immediate war. “The League might become a hindrance to warlike tendencies,” said Stalin. It still contained robber powers who exploited colonial peoples, and small unstable states built up on the loot of Versailles. The Soviet Union admits the justice of the German grievance, but never the right of war to enforce those claims. “Injustices perpetrated by one war,” said Litvinoff, “can never be rectified by a new one, which only perpetrates worse injustices.” The Soviet Union entered the League to strengthen it against the tendency of Germany, Japan and now Italy to throw a torch into the powder magazine of the world. She thus upholds territorial gains of robber nations in order to increase the chances of world peace.

She even goes further. By pacts of mutual assistance concluded with France and Czechoslovakia, she has placed the might of her increasing Red Army behind the status quo of Europe. She joins with these “robber powers” to blockade Italy, herself the first to agree to the sanctions. Yet when oil sanctions are not agreed to, she continues to sell this commodity to Italy,2 bewildering the idealists of many nations. Why? Because no high example can check Italians in Abyssinia or stop the spread of the war infection through the trade channels of the world. Because idealist gestures are dangerous tactics against general staffs of armies: that lesson was learned at Brest-Litovsk. Because isolated action might turn against the Soviet Union a fascist drive from a disintegrating Europe, helped to disintegration by her choice of an individual stand. Only the threat of might may possibly halt the explosive drive towards war of a desperate fascism—the might of Europe organized through the League. The Soviet Union throws herself into the task of organizing it3 through security pacts which she seeks to widen. For the status quo is evil, but war is worse.

To strengthen this might the Soviet Union increases her Red Army, the only armed force on which she can really depend. Britain and France are camps of conflicting interests; on this the Communists have no illusions. In both these countries are strong popular forces supporting the USSR and the League of Nations in the policy of collective security against aggressors, and other strong reactionary forces which would prefer to support Nazi Germany in the looting of Russia. This would launch world war with all the gigantic means of modern destruction. Hence the struggle against world war today becomes inextricably linked with the struggle against fascist tendencies in the major imperialist countries.

This war, if it comes, will be no mere war between nations. It will arouse class conflicts throughout the world. Not at first perhaps, but in the end in every country. This the Red Army understands thoroughly; its loyalty is not alone to Russia but to the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, wherever they exist or come into being. But not unless invaded will the Soviet Union intervene in any other country, either by war or by interference in its affairs. Marxian analysis tells them that this would hamper the revolutionary development of the other country; it would turn workers towards the capitalists of their own country under the name of patriotism. If the world war starts, the Red Army will advance with a rifle in one hand and pamphlets in the other It has shells to distribute tens of thousands of leaflets calling on the brotherhood of all workers; it has also the means of effective war. As the world’s most politically conscious, most mechanized army, trained in many languages, it is able to lead and equip partisan war on the territory of foes. It is told to get results with a minimum of suffering.

I well remember a talk in Moscow with a high Soviet authority on the subject of Japan in the tense winter of 1933. It was clear to us both that the Soviet air fleet was superior and in easy reach of Tokyo. We looked from high windows on the ice in Moscow river and discussed the chances of war.

“A good, industrious folk, the Japanese,” he said slowly. “It would be a pity to bomb them. Do you think any Communist likes to set aflame whole towns of toiling folk? . . . If war should come in the East between us and Japan, we have not the slightest doubt that it would be the end of capitalist Japan. Revolution would start in Manchukuo and spread southward through China, till all Asia was Communist. Every imperialist power in the world would fight this, till at last revolt flamed up in their own lands. The world revolution might thus be accomplished, but the world that survived would be badly ruined. It would cost the lives of tens of millions of toiling folk; it would mean famine and pestilence sweeping all Asia. The world revolution will be secured with much less suffering, if peace can be maintained.”

“The Soviet Union needs no foreign wars for transforming the world,” said Manuilski in 1935 at the Congress of the Communist International. Her struggle for peace is no temporary slogan. With every year of peace the Soviet Union strengthens, not only as a nation, but as a shining example which the world will follow. As socialism advances in the Soviet Union, it begins to attract scientists, engineers, artists; it draws away from allegiance to capitalism wider and wider hosts. With every year of peace—granted the steadily advancing Soviet Union—the international relation of world forces shifts to the side of the Soviet world and to the disadvantage of capitalism.

Capitalism breeds war, yet world war is not inevitable. For capitalism itself is no longer inevitable in the world. If the struggle for peace can avail month by month and year by year, to check, delay and hamper the forces that drive towards war, capitalism itself may collapse in one war-inciting country after another on a sufficient scale to prevent world war altogether. Or world war, if it comes, may be greatly shortened by the revolt of all those people who suffer unbearably from war.

This is the hope behind the Soviet struggle for peace. But whether in peace or in war, the growing strength and prosperity of the Soviet Union, achieved through two Five-Year Plans, insures the direction and is the pledge of the whole world’s future. The only question now is how deep and bitter will be the struggle—even the wars—before the far-flung peoples know and copy. But nothing any longer can stop the advance of their worldwide forces. They have both strength and knowledge and a conscience about the world.


1.  Such as the assassination of Vorovsky during the Lausanne conference, which coincided with an ultimatum from the British Foreign Office; the raid on the Soviet Embassy in Peking, April 1927, followed by the execution of many of its Chinese staff; the raid on the Soviet trading agency in London May 12, 1927; the forged “Zinoviev letter” which swayed a British election. These were only the most spectacular of a whole series of raids, attacks and attempted assassinations which made being a Soviet ambassador a hazardous occupation.

2.  In steadily decreasing amounts, in spite of American headlines to the contrary. It is America’s sales that increase.

3.  She tried first to organize an “Eastern Locarno,” a pact of many nations against anyone who started an aggression. It failed through the refusal of Poland and Germany. Soviet policy is still to expand security pacts to all possible nations, including Germany and Poland, not even the present pacts being exclusive in nature.

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