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Foreign Policy, 1921-28

Lenin, between 1902 and 1917, transformed Marxist ideology into a fighting faith for ardent revolutionaries, superimposing Marxism on the underground terrorist tradition of nineteenth century Russia. In addition, Lenin, in his tract entitled Imperialism (1916), arrived at a rationalization for Marxist revolutions in industrially backward countries with little or no proletariat, a thesis that would have amazed Marx and Engels. This brilliant reinterpretation of Marxism not only had a profound influence on Russian foreign policy, but also influenced the thinking of Mao Tsetung and even Castro in later times. It got the revolution out of the industrially developed countries of Europe and into the rice paddies and jungles of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, they had rather rudimentary notions of how to carryon the foreign relations of a large country. Upon assuming the position of foreign minister, Trotsky declared that he would "issue a few proclamations and close up shop". One reason for this cavalier attitude was the intial Bolshevik conviction that the revolution in Russia would trigger similar explosions in Germany, France, and England, thus bringing into being an international socialist world with no need for the traditional diplomacy of the rotten capitalist past. The attempt to get out of the war with Germany that began in December 1917 and culminated in the ratification of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in March 1918 taught the Bolsheviks some hard lessons in diplomacy. It marked the end of the age of innocence as far as the Bolsheviks were concerned. They went into the negotiations as world revolutionaries; they emerged as men solicitous mainly about their own state and power.

During the three-year period from the spring of 1918 to the spring of 1921, the new regime had its back to the wall in a vicious struggle to stay alive: the Civil War, with few rivals in history for sheer ferocity; the foreign intervention, notable for its inefficiency; and war with the newly liberated Poland. The role of the Red Army as a means of socialist transformation became evident in the Soviet-Polish war of 1920. On Lenin's initiative, and against the advice of Trotsky and others, the Red Army, having first repelled the Polish forces, crossed into Poland and marched on Warsaw; a revolutionary committee of five Polish-Russian Communists was set up in Bialystok as a nucleus of the future Polish government.

In Lenin's eyes Warsaw and, for that matter, all Poland, held a secondary place. The center of his interest was Germany. If Warsaw fell, Soviet troops would have reached the German border; a German Soviet Government would have been formed and kept in readiness, and Communist and semi-Communist forces inside Germany would have been able, in view of the widespread dissatisfaction with the terms of the Versailles Treaty so it was reasoned in Moscow to overthrow the weak government in power.

Lenin announced that the basis of the Versailles Treaty had become shaky. He was looking forward to a Soviet-German military coalition with its own invincible Soviet-German Red Army. Said Zinoviev: "The future development of the world revolution will proceed at the same pace as the march of our Red Army. The Russian proletarian revolution has become the mightiest sovereign state in the world. Menacing the aristocratic white Warsaw, we by that very action tear to scraps the treaty of Versailles."

In the end the Soviet campaign failed. The Red Army was thrown back from Warsaw and retreated into Soviet territory and the attempt at expanding the Soviet system by military means ended. It was not the last experiment of this kind, however; it was to be repeated the next year in Mongolia with a better success [and then, between 1939 and 1948 in Eastern and Central Europe].

It was also during this period that Lenin created the Comintern (the Third International), which was hailed as the headquarters for the world revolution. The new government in Russia was a pariah in the comity of nations, and the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Georgy Chicherin, an aristocrat in the service of the proletariat, showed extraordinary skill in coping with the seemingly impossible task of making Moscow's voice heard in the chancelleries of the world. He followed Lenin's policy to the letter: wait out the period of the greatest weakness and capitalize on any and all conflicts within the bourgeois world.

By March 1921, the Bolsheviks had won the Civil War, made peace with Poland, and were in control of an economically ruined and starving Russia. Even those stalwart revolutionists of the October Days, the Baltic sailors, "rebelled" in their Kronshtadt fortress in early 1921. As a result of all these factors, Lenin promulgated a series of drastic changes in March: the economy was transformed from complete state control into a mixed system in which private enterprise played a major role, and the foreign policy of the nation was directed toward the normalization of relations with the bourgeois states. The New Economic Policy (NEP), the all-embracing name for the changes in policy, lasted until 1928. It was in the NEP period that Chicherin persuaded most of the great powers and a good many small ones to recognize the Soviet Union.* His major diplomatic triumph was probably the engineering of the Treaty of Rapallo with Germany on 16 April 1922, a feat accomplished in the teeth of British and French opposition.

By the early 1920s it was obvious that Western Europe was not about to erupt in revolution, and the Bolsheviks turned to the colonial and semicolonial areas as more suitable for Bolshevik-inspired revolution-making. The main thesis of Lenin's Imperialism was that the survival of the great capitalist powers was dependent upon their ability to extract enormous profits from the exploitation of the colonial and semicolonial areas. Therefore, if these areas could be organized to throw out their exploiters, the collapse of capitalism as predicted by Marx would be hastened. Lenin, however, visualized Communist parties as the vanguard of the proletariat, and these areas had little industry and therefore only tiny proletariats.

Thus the initial "wars of liberation" would have to be won by the national bourgeoisie, and the embryonic Communist parties should ally with them. Only later, when the industrialization process was proceeding apace, would a Communist take-over be possible. Between 1923 and 1927, the Comintern under Stalin's direction tried to implement this strategy in China. The tiny Communist Party of China (CPC) was forced into an alliance with the Kuomintang in an effort to unify China and oust the imperialists. But Chiang Kaishek, well aware of the long-range goals of his Communist allies, turned on them in 1927 and nearly obliterated the CPC.

In the 1920s, as the new Soviet state temporarily retreated from the revolutionary path to socialism, the party also adopted a less ideological approach in its relations with the rest of the world. Lenin, ever the practical leader, having become convinced that socialist revolution would not break out in other countries in the near future, realized that his government required normal relations with the Western world for it to survive. Not only were good relations important for national security, but the economy also required trade with the industrial countries. Blocking Soviet attainment of these desires were lingering suspicions of communism on the part of the Western powers and concern over the foreign debts incurred by the tsarist government that the Soviet government had unilaterally canceled.

In April 1922, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs, Georgii Chicherin, circumvented these difficulties by achieving an understanding with Germany, the other pariah state of Europe, at Rapallo, Italy. In the Treaty of Rapallo, Germany and Russia agreed on mutual recognition, cancellation of debt claims, normalization of trade relations, and secret cooperation in military development. After concluding the treaty, the Soviet Union soon obtained diplomatic recognition from other major powers, beginning with Britain in February 1924. Although the United States withheld recognition until 1933, private American firms began to extend technological assistance and develop commercial links beginning in the 1920s.

Toward the non-Western world, the Soviet leadership limited its policy to promoting opposition among the indigenous populations against imperialist exploitation. Moscow did pursue an active policy in China, aiding the rise of the Nationalist Party, a non-Marxist organization committed to reform and national sovereignty. After the triumph of the Nationalists, a debate developed among Soviet leaders concerning the future status of relations with China. Stalin wanted the Chinese Communist Party to join the Nationalists and infiltrate the government from within, while Trotsky proposed an armed communist uprising and forcible imposition of socialism in that country. Although Stalin's plan was finally accepted, it came to nought when in 1926 the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered the Chinese communists massacred and Soviet advisers expelled.

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Page last modified: 30-01-2016 19:10:04 ZULU