Chapter 14: The Theory

Submitted by Reddebrek on April 22, 2016

The Bolsheviks came to power on the assumption that the events of October 1917 would be the signal for the seizure of power by the workers of Western Europe. They did not see themselves as a separate national group, awaiting the action of workers in other countries, but, by historical accident, the temporary leaders of an international movement. It was the duty of the Bolsheviks to ferment revolution in the rest of Europe by all the means in their power. Since, in their opinion, the revolution in Europe was the political and material condition of their own survival, it was understandable that they poured their energies into the new international workers’ party, the Communist International. This was the key to the paradox: a workers’ revolution in a country where the working class was a minority and the material conditions backward.

Nonetheless, the new State had also to ensure its own survival. That required opening up relations, particularly trade relations, with existing States. The “international bourgeoisie”, with sections ruling each of the constituent units of the advanced world, was riven with internal rivalries (just as each country was riven with the rivalries between individual firms). It was the rivalry between the Austro-German and the Anglo-French-American “imperialist predators” which permitted the Soviet Union its temporary lease on life. It permitted the treaty of BrestLitovsk with Germany whereby Russia ended its involvement in the First World War.

The treaty evoked considerable opposition within the party, and Lenin spent much time explaining why it was necessary: “The outcome might have seemed something like a bloc between the first Socialist Republic and German imperialism, against another imperialism [Anglo-French-American imperialism]. However, we did not conclude a bloc or defame the socialist state; we simply took advantage of the conflict between the two imperialisms in such a way that both were ultimately the losers. Germany obtained nothing from the Brest peace except several million poods of grain, but she brought the disintegrating force of Bolshevism into the country. We, however, gained time, in the course of which the formation of the Red Army began.” [1] The treaty cost Russia the Ukraine. “In the case of the Brest-Litovsk peace, we sacrificed Russia s interests, as understood in the patriotic sense, which were in fact secondary from the socialist point of view.” The Bolsheviks sacrificed the national interest in order to spread disaffection among the Kaiser’s armies and mobilize support for German workers in the task of overthrowing the Kaiser. The policy was the reverse of what came later, the sacrifice of the international purpose for the defence of the Russian State.

In the aftermath of the treaty, the, Bolsheviks were preoccupied with fighting the civil war at home and supporting the revolution abroad. By 1920, as we have seen, the party and the country were exhausted; the revolutionary assault of 1919 in Western Europe had been beaten off. The need now was to retreat, to bind up the wounds, to prepare for a future assault. While the International endeavoured to consolidate its membership round the world, the Russian State needed to pursue policies which, as far as was possible given Soviet material weakness, would sustain the rivalries between its enemies (so preserving some measure of security for its own survival) and restore the Russian economy, the material base of world revolution.

“To restore the economy ... is more difficult than fighting ... victory will not depend on enthusiasm, dash or self-sacrifice, but on day-to-day, monotonous, petty and workaday effort. That is undoubtedly a more difficult matter. Where are we to procure the means of production we need?” Russia had too little gold to buy the means to rehabilitate the economy; it could not pay in raw materials because the urgent need was to feed the population. It must offer “foreign concessions”, quasicolonial rights over some of the raw materials unexploited in Russia’s vast territories.

Such a proposal evoked considerable unease, indeed alarm, in the party ranks. With characteristic bluntness, Lenin laid down the priorities: “For Kamchatka, we shall pay in terms of 100,000 poods of oil, taking only two per cent for ourselves. If we do not pay up, we shall not even get two poods. This is an exorbitant price, but while capitalism exists, we cannot expect a fair price from it. Yet the advantages are beyond doubt.” [2]

Surely this was to sacrifice the fruits of the revolution for the sake of a pittance? It was not, for the primary justification was not Russia’s survival, but that it gave the Russian State the means to exacerbate the rivalries between its enemies. Not all rivalries were involved: “We must take political advantage of the differences among our opponents, but only of major differences that are due to profound economic causes. If we try to exploit minor and fortuitous differences, we shall be behaving like petty politicians and cheap diplomats.” [3] For only major differences exhibited the structure of world power, the drift of conflict. In the case of Kamchatka, Japan eyed it as part of its sphere of influence. The United States was offered the concessions, and the by-product was the means of material survival for Russia. But the conflict of the United States and Japan which, according to Lenin, would sooner or later produce an open war should not induce the Soviet Union to side with one or the other: “To support one of these countries against the other would be a crime against communism; we Communists have to play one off against the other.”

The Brest peace and the foreign concessions raised different issues. The justification of Brest was that it made possible Bolshevik survival and intervention in Germany; in the case of foreign concessions, when the revolutionary movement abroad was in temporary decline, it exacerbated rivalries in the enemy camp and assisted the survival of Russia.

The Soviet Union extended aid to Ataturk in Turkey, to the Shah of Iran and to Sun Yat-sen in China. Yet in certain circumstances, such aid could make it more difficult for local Communist parties to lead a revolution against these rulers. The Russian leadership endeavoured to prevent the agreement between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany being construed as political support for the German ruling class, the target of the German Communist party. Without such a distinction, the policies of the Russian State directly obstructed the aims of the Communist International.

In the case of the backward countries, the possibility of confusion was much greater. For the alliance between the Western proletariat and the “oppressed nations” could with ease be construed as support for the ruling classes of the backward countries. Then working-class internationalism faded into something else, the “internationalism of nations”, the fraternity of ruling classes. Lenin had no doubt what this meant: “Petty bourgeois nationalism calls the mere recognition of the equality of nations internationalism, and (disregarding the purely verbal character of such recognition) considers national egoism inviolable. Proletarian internationalism on the other hand demands: (1) subordination of the interests of proletarian struggle in one country to the interests of the struggle on a world scale; (2) that the nation which achieves victory over the bourgeoisie shall display the capacity and readiness to make the greatest national sacrifices in order to overthrow international capitalism.” [4]

The Bolshevik view, then, was that the October revolution was a temporary victory; its justification was that thereby Russia could “make the greatest national sacrifices” for the overthrow of the world order. State relations were subordinate not to abstract principles but to temporary survival while the revolutionary movement was built to overthrow, with Bolshevik material aid, the States with which Russia had relations. Russian State relations must not be such that they could be construed as political support for a ruling class. Similarly, the Russian State could not extend material aid to a foreign State even if it was effective as a bribe for certain purposes or exacerbated the rivalries between States, if that aid could be used to repress a domestic revolt, to eliminate the possibility of revolution. Above all, State relations must at no stage prevent or inhibit local Communists making independent propaganda against the local ruling class and endeavouring to build a workers’ alternative. If that did occur, then the interests of the Russian State had taken priority over those of world revolution.

(i) The Chinese Communist Party

How far do these elementary principles apply to the external activities of the Chinese Communists and the State they direct? The most striking observation is that there is no International, no instrument of a world working class and no strategy for creating a “world proletarian alliance”. Up to the 1960s, it might have been argued that the Chinese party accepted the leadership of the Soviet Union in external affairs and was unwilling to challenge Moscow by the creation of a new International (the Comintern was ended in 1943 as a Russian gesture of Allied solidarity to its British and American partners in the Second World War; its successor, the Cominform, included only nine governing and two non- governing parties – it did not include the Chinese – and lasted from 1947 to 1956). But in all the polemics between Moscow and Peking, the Chinese party never reproached the Soviet Communist party with scrapping the Comintern or failing to create a new International. Indeed, it opposed any such proposal since it saw an International solely as a method of Russian domination of China. After the Sino-Soviet break, the Chinese party took no serious initiative in the matter. It is thus reduced to being a passive spectator in most domestic confrontations; it has no instrument for changing the world, and is confined to the role of commentator, distributing praise and blame but without active involvement. Supporters of China explain this anomaly as flowing from the weakness of the world movement. This presents a paradox, for, on the one hand, the Chinese Communists proclaim that the world situation is “excellent”; on the other, the proletarian forces are weaker than in the 1860s when the first International was formed!

The Chinese party has encouraged some of its supporters abroad. But so far as can be seen, it has never given such groups material aid. This is confirmed repeatedly by the Chinese leadership, and there is no reason, despite Western propaganda, to disbelieve it. Nor do such groups pursue any common strategy; “national egoism”, as Lenin called it, is all. China’s material aid to “unofficial forces” such as it is has been given, not to its declared supporters, but to other forces fighting foreign occupation – the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, FRELIMO in Mozambique, the FNLA in Angola, and, briefly, to the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Middle East.

The entirety of the Chinese Communist party’s policies abroad is therefore directed through the official foreign policy of the People’s Republic. State policy is thus no longer a minor tactic to secure temporary survival. “Internationalism” must mean relations between States, between ruling classes, not a world class alliance. It must mean also that the Chinese State is bound to accept the States concerned, to accept the given order of the world; it is impossible to maintain State relations while simultaneously taking active steps to encourage revolt or even using Chinese diplomatic missions abroad to proclaim the need for revolution. The People’s Republic recognized this convervatism in the principle of “peaceful co-existence” (as did Stalin, who originally formulated the idea), which is espoused officially by China and, indeed, by all the States of the world – domestic revolt is solely a matter for the ruling class concerned, and no “foreigner” has the right to interfere. Chinese Communists may sympathize, but they have no instrument other than the Chinese State with which to influence events.

The principles of Chinese Communist policies abroad have remained remarkably consistent, although tactically there have been different phases in their application. Whereas Lenin was concerned to secure the temporary survival of the Soviet Union in order to prosecute world revolution – and to “utilize the contradictions” between rival powers to this end – the Chinese party has expended much energy in endeavouring to “utilize the contradictions” solely for its own survival. What have been the phases in this effort?

Up to the Civil War, the party was primarily concerned to divide the Kuomintang from the United States. Much effort was devoted to wooing the US military mission in Chungking. So far as can be seen, no efforts were made to foster mutiny in the Japanese army or rebellion in Japan, the primary purpose of the relationship between the Bolsheviks and Germany in 1917-18.
From 1949, the party accepted of necessity (particularly during the Korean War) the international leadership of the Soviet Union. The Cold and Korean Wars ended all relationships with the United States and drove China into an alliance with Russia. However, the Chinese party seems to have endeavoured to form a bloc of Communist parties under its leadership, committed to rural guerilla warfare (not necessarily without Soviet blessing). It was not accidental that such warfare broke out in 1947-8 in Burma, Malaya, the Philippines and Indonesia. The movements were contained by the established governments in all cases. China also extended, from 1949, considerable material aid to the Vietminh in Vietnam against the French attempt to re-establish its control.
With the ending of the Korean and the first phase of the Vietnam War, the People’s Republic endeavoured to form a bloc of States, the “Third World”, under its leadership. The close relationship between China and Nehru’s India, and Chou En-lai’s role at the 1955 Bandung Conference, were the high points of this endeavour. China’s position was somewhat ambiguous since the dominant theme at Bandung was “non-alignment” between East and West, whereas China was aligned with the Soviet Union.
In the late 1950s, the relationship with the Soviet Union deteriorated rapidly over a range of issues, while the relationship with India began to decline from 1959 over the question of Tibet, finally being destroyed in the border clashes of 1962. China now sought to create a new bloc of States, more narrowly defined in ideological terms than in 1955 – North Korea, North Vietnam, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Ben Bella’s Algeria, Nkrumah’s Ghana, and even, at one stage, Castro’s Cuba. It was short-lived. North Korea and North Vietnam opted for neutrality in the Sino-Soviet dispute (both attended the 23rd Congress of the Soviet Communist party which the Chinese party boycotted) and for Russian material assistance. Cuba, in urgent need of Soviet aid, chose to try to create a rival International, the Havana Tricontinental Congress (January 1965), and ultimately opted for the link with Russia. Sukarno, Ben Bella and Nkrumah were all overthrown.
China simultaneously attempted to secure close relationships with the advanced States (other than the Soviet Union and the United States); an effort continued after the Cultural Revolution (when, very briefly, other policies were pursued, although in general the external activities of the People’s Republic declined markedly). This brought material supplies to make up for the loss of Russian help or sales.
In the late 1960s, by a fortunate conjuncture of events, China was able once more to achieve a relationship with the United States. After the armed clashes with Russian forces on the Chinese border in 1969, the threat of Russia increasingly came to dominate all the external policies of the People’s Republic, including the fluctuating relationship with Washington. The American link permitted the People’s Republic to gain entry to the United Nations, and this became a central forum for China’s continuing efforts to create a bloc of backward States, the “Third World”.

What is the theoretical underpinning of Chinese foreign policy? The Chinese party has revised Lenin’s concept of imperialism in an interesting way. Imperialism now is not a world system dominated by the rivalries of the advanced powers, each advanced power being compelled to compete by the world system itself; it is a world of States, dominated in the 1950s by one “superpower” (the US), in the 1960s by two “superpowers”, and increasingly in the 1970s again by one “superpower” (now the Soviet Union). The word “imperialism” refers not to a world order, but to the relationship between the “superpowers” and pre-eminently the backward States (but latterly, as we shall see, the advanced capitalist powers other than the superpowers are also oppressed). In practice, such a view implies that the superpower has the most freedom to manoeuvre; it can choose whether or not to “oppress”. In Lenin’s view, the advanced capitalist States have very little choice but to compete, and thereby oppress.

What is the prize for the superpower? According to the Chinese, it is domination of the backward countries, not the defeat of other advanced powers (as it was for Lenin; competition in the backward countries was only the arena of struggle for the advanced). In 1945-6, when Stalin warned the Chinese party not to start a civil war lest the United States attack Russia in retaliation, Mao claimed that the United States was not interested in dominating the Soviet Union, only in the zone between Russia and America. [5] In Mao’s terms, the “principal contradiction” was not between the advanced rivals, but between the United States and all the other States of the world other than the Soviet Union. Thus in 1958 he saw the purpose of NATO not as competition with the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact, but as “an attack on nationalism and domestic communism (the emphasis is to attack the intermediate zone, Asia, Africa an Latin America)”. [6] In 1964, he described the aim of the United States eighteen years earlier as “to invade the buffer zone and not to fight the Soviet Union. The anti-Soviet slogan was a smokescreen.” [7] By the mid-1960s, however, the situation had apparently become less clear, for Mao told Edgar Snow that he had not decided whether the “principal contradiction” was between “neo-colonialism” and “the revolutionary peoples” or between the capitalist countries themselves. [8]

The contenders were States, national ruling classes, not international classes. It followed, as it had for Stalin, that the “revolutionary peoples” included “also the patriotic national bourgeoisie, and even certain kings and princes and aristocrats who are patriotic”. [9] The States were constant, but all the other terms – for example, “superpower”, “intermediate or buffer zone” – could change according to temporary tactical needs. Thus in 1965 Mao startled a French parliamentary delegation with his use of the term “the Third World”: “France itself, Germany, Italy, Great Britain – provided the latter stops being the courtier of the United States – Japan and we ourselves: there you have the third world.” The definition was of no particular importance since it was not part of a strategic orientation on an objective world situation (that was due, in Lenin’s words, “to profound economic causes”). Theory, concepts, were rationalizations after the tactics had been decided upon, not the basis for the tactics. It is this factor which gives Chinese politics such a timeless character. At any given moment, the situation is equally excellent, the revolution always rising, there are no defeats, all is ever onwards and upwards. For example, in 1958 Mao observed that “The Western world is disintegrating. Currently, it is in the process of breaking up ... Final disintegration is inevitable.” [10] And again: “The enemy is in disarray, more and more so. We are getting better, better and better every day ... the truly discouraged is imperialism. They are rotting, becoming disorderly, full of conflicts, splitting apart, experiencing a bad time. Their good days are over. Their good days were before they turned into imperialism, when they only had capitalism.” [11] This, at the height of a quarter of a century’s unprecedented growth in world capitalism, well before the Vietnam war! Sixteen years later, the Chinese press was still repeating: “The imperialist camp has split and disintegrated as a result of the daily decline of US imperialism. The socialist camp no longer exists as the Soviet revisionist renegade clique has restored capitalism and turned the socialist Soviet Union into social imperialism. Meanwhile, the third world flourishes with its ranks growing stronger and stronger, its political consciousness raised daily and its unity strengthened daily.” [12] Morale is all, truth nothing. There was, on this formulation, apparently nothing to be done except assume power in all countries.

The concepts were ambiguous to preserve tactical flexibility. However, the clashes affecting China’s borders invariably prompt the régime to take a much firmer line than on other occasions (in contrast to Lenin’s attitude to the Ukraine at the time of Brest-Litovsk). The bitterness of the relationship with the United States in the 1950s was provoked by the Korean War and the US defence of Taiwan. The relationship to India was completely reversed, regardless of all such classifications as the “Third World” and “oppressed peoples”, by the 1962 Sino-Indian border clash. And the bitterness, at the time of writing, in full flood against the Soviet Union was sparked by the 1960 withdrawal of Russian experts, but heightened by the border clashes of 1969.

(ii) The mode of struggle

The aim of Chinese foreign policy is to win greater security for China. To achieve this, the People’s Republic has endeavoured to win foreign ruling classes as allies against the “superpowers”. To this end the Chinese leadership has never been so naïve as to rely on political argument and propaganda. They have used “material incentives” – that is, aid and trading agreements. Overwhelmingly, this is the main part of China’s assistance abroad, not aid to revolutionary organizations.

China began its foreign aid programme in the 1950s. Aid was used to secure certain relationships, to give sinew to diplomatic détente. After the Cultural Revolution – with the physical threat from the Soviet Union – China extended its aid programme in an effort to secure a seat in the United Nations and create a loose voting bloc within it. Between 1970 and 1974, cumulative Chinese aid was about US $2,400 million, more than double the total for the years between 1956 and 1969. From 1970 (when foreign estimates of cumulative Chinese grants, loans and credits put the figure at about US $1,200 million) the chief recipients have been Vietnam ($400 million) Romania ($200 million), Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Zambia, but have included Guyana, Chile, Malaya, Peru, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Mauretania, Somalia, Iraq and Burma.

Chinese aid has been heavily concentrated on Africa. By 1975, it was larger in cumulative total than Soviet aid, although China’s total world aid is only sixteen per cent of all Eastern Bloc aid, of which the Soviet Union supplies seventy-seven per cent (Eastern Bloc aid in 1975 was US $1,715 million, compared to Western aid of US $26,000 million or more than the total cumulative Eastern Bloc aid in twenty-one years). Some twenty-three countries in Africa are in receipt of Chinese aid, but the largest expenditure has been on the Tanzam railway (completed in 1976). In Asia, seven countries have taken a quarter of all Chinese aid, and in the Middle East, five countries have been the chief beneficiaries. In South America, Peru has been the main recipient, although there is a wide scatter of other countries, some of whom were granted aid without according China diplomatic recognition (for example, Guyana). [13]

Aid seems to have been extended for two related purposes: to secure entry to the United Nations, and to block Russian influence. Because Russian aid is roughly five times larger than Chinese, the contest is difficult. It is obligatory that Chinese terms are more favourable than those of its rivals. The political nature of the régime to which aid is extended has, with a few exceptions, never been an important calculation. For example, Pakistan in 1966 was the main military client State of the United States in south Asia (a member of the two American-sponsored pacts, CENTO and SEATO, and the location of the US spy base at Peshawar); it was also a conservative authoritarian régime in which the Communist party was banned; nonetheless, Chinese aid was extended to the government without obliging it to withdraw from the US relationship. Chinese aid was similarly advanced to the “feudal” régime of Hailie Selassie, aid taken from the surplus product of Chinese workers and peasants was used to support a régime comparable, in Chinese terms, to the Ch’ing dynasty!

However, with regard to the first aim, under the benevolent neutrality of the United States, the policy worked. In October 1971 the People’s Republic was admitted to the United Nations. China had hitherto rejected the United Nations, although not as “the League of Imperialist Bandits” (Lenin’s phrase for the United Nations’ predecessor, the League of Nations). For example, it was full of praise when Sukarno’s Indonesia walked out of the United Nations in the l960s. Now the United Nations became an “arena of struggle”, a world court for the indictment of the superpowers. Pursing the same logic, China applied for entry to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but subsequently withdrew its application when those bodies refused to expel Taiwan.

Is China using the United Nations to publicize its condemnation of the world order? It would be a poor way of achieving this purpose since the deliberations of that body have no popular following. The delegates are the audience and, by objective criteria, members of the world ruling class. Such tactical considerations have not guided China since it is dedicated to supporting the United Nations. It increased its contribution to the UN budget from four to seven per cent of the total in October 1972, so becoming the third largest contributor after the United States and the Soviet Union. China’s declared policy is not to denounce the United Nations as a conspiracy of the “imperialist bandits”, an employers’ confederation, but “to uphold the principles of the United Nations Charter”. For example, on entering the United Nations, Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs, Ch’iao Kuan-hua, proclaimed: “We hope that the spirit of the United Nations Charter will be really and truly carried out. We will stand together with all the countries and peoples that love peace and uphold justice and work together with them for the defence of national independence and State sovereignty of various countries and for the cause of safeguarding international peace and promoting human progress.” [14] The United States delegate could not have put it better. Was the statement a subterfuge? It was published in China and around the world; there was no accompanying commentary which suggested any alternative strategy, of which this was only a tactical diversion. Nor does China go further than the conservative principles that govern the United Nations in its main interventions. For example, in August 1972, China vetoed the application of Bangladesh for membership on the grounds of “defence of the principles of the United Nations Charter, the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly and Security Council, which gave expression to the will of the overwhelming majority of the countries of the world and the fundamental interests of the entire people”. If the United Nations in any sense represents the interests of the people of the world, clearly so do the national governments represented there – the world order, apart from a few anomalies, is the best possible!


1. Speech delivered at a meeting of activists of the Moscow Organization of the RCP(B), 6 Dec. 1920, CW31, p.440 passim; stress added.

2. Ibid., p.457.

3. Ibid., p.442, stress added.

4. Second Congress, Communist International, in The Communist International 1919-1943 (edited by Jane Degras), London, 1971, I, p.143.

5. Cited by John Gittings, from Wan Sui, 1969, in CQ 60, October-December 1974, p.756.

6. In Miscellany I, p.136.

7. Ibid. II, p.364.

8. Mao Speaks, in the Sunday Times, London, 14 February 1965, p.11.

9. A Proposal concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement, Peking, June 1963, p.15.

10. 25 November 1958, in Miscellany I, p.123.

11. December 1958, ibid., p.148.

12. NCNA Peking, 22 Jan. 1974, SCMP 5545, 4 February 1974.

13. For further details, see Lynn Yamashita, The Times, 28 September 1976 and Far Eastern Economic Review, 30 July 1976, pp.45-6.

14. PR 46, 1971.