The League of Nations and the Communist International (From Trotsky's Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 8, Section 2)

Trotsky's analysis of the League of Nations (predecessor to the United Nations) exposes the weakness and hypocrisy of a world body dominated by imperialist powers.

Introductory note:

We are providing here for the interest of our readers a piece from Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed in which he deals with the League of Nations. As there is so much talk today about the role of the United Nations we think it apt to remind our readers that this question is not a new one. It has been dealt with many times by the Marxist movement. In 1936 all the conditions were being prepared for war, which broke out just three years later. Trotsky quotes Stalin’s reply to the question ‘Is war inevitable’. Stalin’s reply was the following: "I think that the position of the friends of peace is growing stronger; the friends of peace can work openly, they rely upon the strength of public opinion, they have at their disposal such instruments, for instance, as the League of Nations." No wonder therefore that even to this day many of the heirs of Stalin are still pushing the same line on the United Nations. Just as the League of Nations was incapable of stopping the war, so today the UN can do nothing to stop the US from attacking Iraq. We invite our readers to take note of Trotsky’s analysis, as valid today as it was then. (February, 2003)


The rapprochement and subsequent outright military treaty with France, the chief defender of the status quo-a policy which resulted from the victory of German National Socialism-is infinitely more favorable to France than to the Soviets. The obligation to military from the side of the Soviets is, according to the treaty, unconditional; French help, on the contrary, is conditioned upon a preliminary agreement with England and Italy, which opens an unlimited field for hostile machinations against the Soviet Union. The events connected with the Rhineland demonstrated that, with a more realistic appraisal of the situation, and with more restraint, Moscow might have gotten better guarantees from France-if indeed treaties can be considered "guarantees" in an epoch of sharp changes of set-up, continued diplomatic crises, rapprochements and breaks. But this is not the first time it has become evident that the Soviet bureaucracy is far more firm in its struggles against the advanced workers of its own country, than in negotiation with the bourgeois diplomats.

The assertion that help from the side of the Soviet Union is of little consequence in view of the fact that it has no common boundary with Germany, is not to be taken seriously. In case Germany attacks the Soviet Union, the common boundary will obviously be found by the attacking side. In the case of an attack by Germany on Austria, Czechoslovakia, and France, Poland cannot remain neutral for a day. If she recognizes her obligations as an ally of France, she will inevitably open the road to the Red Army; and if she breaks her treaty of alliance, she will immediately become a helpmate of Germany. In the latter case, the Soviet Union will have no difficulty in finding a "common boundary". Moreover, in a future war, the sea and air "boundaries" will play no less a role than those on land.

The entrance of the Soviet Union into the League of Nations- represented to the Russian population, with the help of a stage management worthy of Goebbels, as a triumph of socialism and a result of "pressure" from the world proletariat-was in reality acceptable to the bourgeoisie only as a result of the extreme weakening of the revolutionary danger. It was not a victory of the Soviet Union, but a capitulation of the Thermidorean bureaucracy to this hopelessly compromised Geneva institution, which, according to the above-quoted words of the Bolshevik program, "will direct its future efforts to the suppression of revolutionary movements". What has changed so radically since the days of the Magna Carta of Bolshevism: the nature of the League of Nations, the function of pacifism in a capitalist society, or-the policy of the Soviets? To ask the question is to answer it.

Experience quickly proved that participation in the League of Nations, while adding nothing to those practical advantages which could be had by way of agreements with separate bourgeois states, imposes at the same time serious limitations and obligations. These the Soviet Union is performing with the most pedantic faithfulness in the interest of its still unaccustomed conservative prestige. The necessity of accommodation within the League not only to France, but also to her allies, compelled Soviet diplomacy to occupy an extremely equivocal position in the Italian-Abyssinian conflict. At the very time when Litvinov, who was nothing at Geneva but a shadow of Laval, expressed his gratitude to the diplomats of France and England for their efforts "in behalf of peace", efforts which so auspiciously resulted in the annihilation of Abyssinia, oil from the Caucausus continued to nourish the Italian fleet. Even if you can understand that the Moscow government hesitated openly to break a commercial treaty, still the trade unions were not obliged to take into consideration the undertakings of the Commissariat of Foreign Trade. An actual stoppage of exports to Italy by a decision of the Soviet trade unions would have evoked a world movement of boycott incomparably more real than the treacherous "sanctions", measured as they were in advance by diplomatists and jurists in agreement with Mussolini. And if the Soviet trade unions never lifted a finger this time, in contrast with 1926, when they openly collected millions of rubles for the British coal strike, it is only because such an initiative was forbidden by the ruling bureaucracy, chiefly to curry favor with France. In the coming world war, however, no military allies can recompense the Soviet Union for the lost confidence of the colonial peoples and of the toiling masses in general.

Can it be that this is not understood in the Kremlin?

(Izvestia 17/9/35)

The Italian proletariat is in the chains of fascism; the Chinese revolution is shattered, and Japan is playing the boss in China; the German proletariat is so crushed that Hitler's plebiscite encounters no resistance whatever; the proletariat of Austria is bound hand and foot; the revolutionary parties of the Balkans are trampled in the earth; in France, in Spain, the workers are marching at the tail of the radical bourgeoisie. In spite of all this, the Soviet government from the time of its entrance into the League of Nation has had "more friends in the world than ever before"! This boast, so fantastic at first glance, has a very real meaning when you apply it not to the workers' state, but to its ruling group. Was it not indeed the cruel defeats of the world proletariat which permitted the Soviet bureaucracy to usurp the power at home and earn a more or less favorable "public opinion" in the capitalist countries? The less the Communist International is capable of threatening the positions of capital, the more political credit is given to the Kremlin government in the eyes of French, Czechoslovak, and other bourgeoisies. Thus the strength of the bureaucracy, both domestic and international, is in inverse proportion to the strength of the Soviet Union as a socialist state and a fighting base of the proletarian revolution. However, that is only one side of the medal. There is another.

Lloyd George, in whose jumps and sensations there is often a glimmer of shrewd penetration, warned the House of Commons in November 1934 against condemning fascist Germany, which, according to his words, was destined to be the most reliable bulwark against communism in Europe. "We shall yet greet her as our friend." Most significant words! The half-patronizing, half-ironical praise addressed by the world bourgeoisie to the Kremlin is not of itself in the slightest degree a guarantee of peace, or even a simple mitigation of the war danger. The evolution of the Soviet bureaucracy is of interest to the world bourgeoisie in the last analysis from the point of view of possible changes in the forms of property. Napoleon I, after radically abandoning the traditions of Jacobinism, donning the crown, and restoring the Catholic cult, remained nevertheless an object of hatred to the whole of ruling semi-feudal Europe, because he continued to defend the new property system created by the revolution. Until the monopoly of foreign trade is broken and the rights of capital restored, the Soviet Union, in spite of all the services of its ruling stratum, remains in the eyes of the bourgeoisie of the whole world an irreconcilable enemy, and German National Socialism a friend, if not today, at least of tomorrow. Even during the negotiations of Barthou and Laval with Moscow, the big French bourgeoisie, in spite of the critical danger from the side of Hitler, and the sharp turn of the French Communist Party to patriotism, stubbornly refused to stake its game on the Soviet card. When he signed the treaty with the Soviet Union, Laval was accused from the Left of frightening Berlin with Moscow, while seeking in reality a rapprochement with Berlin and Rome against Moscow. This judgment was perhaps a little premature, but by no means in conflict with the natural development of events.

However one may judge the advantages of disadvantages of the Franco-Soviet pact, still, no serious revolutionary statesman would deny the right of the Soviet state to seek supplementary supports for its inviolability in temporary agreements with this or that imperialism. It is only necessary clearly and openly to show the masses the place of these partial and tactical agreements in the general system of historic forces. In order to make use particularly of the antagonism between France and Germany, there is not the slightest need of idealizing the bourgeois ally, or that combination of imperialists which temporarily hides behind the screen of the League of Nations. Not only Soviet diplomacy, however, but in its steps the Communist International systematically paints up the episodical allies of Moscow as "friends of peace", deceives the workers with slogans like "collective security" and "disarmament", and thus becomes in reality a political agent of the imperialists among the working classes.

The notorious interview given by Stalin to the president of the Scripps-Howard newspapers, Roy Howard, on March 1, 1936, is a precious document for the characterization of bureaucratic blindness upon the great questions of world politics, and of that false relation which has been established between the leaders of the Soviet Union and the world workers' movement. To the question, Is war inevitable?, Stalin answers:

"I think that the position of the friends of peace is growing stronger; the friends of peace can work openly, they rely upon the strength of public opinion, they have at their disposal such instruments, for instance, as the League of Nations."

In these words, there is not a glimmer of realism. The bourgeois states do not divide themselves into "friends" and "enemies" of peace-especially since "peace" as such does not exist. Each imperialist country is interested in preserving its peace, and the more sharply interested, the more unbearable this peace may be for its enemies. The formula common to Stalin, Baldwin, Leon Blum, and others, "peace would be really guaranteed if all states united in the League for its defense", means merely that peace would be guaranteed if there existed no causes for its violation. The thought is correct, if you please, but not exactly weighty. The great powers who are nonmembers of the League, like the United States, obviously value a free hand above the abstraction of "peace". For just what purpose they need these free hands they will show in due time. Those states which withdraw from the League, like Japan and Germany, or temporarily take a "leave of absence" from it, like Italy, also have sufficiently material reasons for what they do. Their break with the League merely changes the diplomatic form of existent antagonisms, but not their nature and not the nature of the League. Those virtuous nation which swear eternal loyalty to the League compel themselves the more resolutely to employ it in support of their peace. But even so, there is no agreement. England is quite ready to extend the period of peace-at the expense of France's interests in Europe or in Africa. France, in her turn, is ready to sacrifice the safety of the British naval routes-for the support of Italy. But for the defense of their own interests, they are both ready to resort to war-to the most just, it goes without saying of all wars. And, finally, the small states, which for the lack of anything better seek shelter in the shadow of the League, will show up in the long run not on the side of "peace", but on the side of the strongest combination in the war.

The League in its defense of the status quo is not an organization of "peace", but an organization of the violence of the imperialist minority over the overwhelming majority of mankind. This "order" can be maintained only with the help of continual wars, little and big-today in the colonies, tomorrow between the great powers. Imperialist loyalty to the status quo has always a conditional, temporary, and limited character. Italy was yesterday defending the status quo of Europe, but not in Africa. What will be her policy in Europe tomorrow, nobody knows. But already the change of boundaries in Africa finds its reflection in Europe. Hitler made bold to lead his troops into the Rhineland only because Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. It would be hard to number Italy among the "friends" of peace. However, France values her friendship with Italy incomparably more than her friendship with the Soviet Union. England on her side seeks a friendship with Germany. The groupings change; the appetites remain. The task of the so-called partisans of the status quo is in essence to find in the League the most auspicious combination of forces, and the most advantageous cover for the preparation of a future war. Who will begin it and how, depends upon circumstances of secondary importance. Somebody will have to begin it, because the status quo is a cellarful of explosives.

A program of "disarmament", while imperialist antagonisms survive, is the most pernicious of fictions. Even if it were realized by way of general agreement-an obviously fantastic assumption!-that would by no means prevent a new war. The imperialists do not make war because there are armaments; on the contrary, they forge arms when they need to fight. The possibilities of a new, and, moreover, very speedy, arming lie in contemporary technique. Under no matter what agreements, limitations and "disarmaments", the arsenals, the military factories, the laboratories, the capitalist industries as a whole, preserve their force. Thus Germany, disarmed by her conquerors under the most careful control (which, by the way, is the only real form of "disarmament"!) is again, thanks to her powerful industries, becoming the citadel of European militariam. She intends, in her turn, to "disarm" certain of her neighbors. The idea of a so-called "progressive disarmament" means only an attempt to cut down excessive military expenses in time of peace. But that task, too, remains unrealized. In consequence of differences of geographic position, economic power and colonial saturation, any standards of disarmament would inevitably change the correlation of forces to the advantage of some and to the disadvantage of others. Hence the fruitlessness of the attempts made in Geneva. Almost 20 years of negotiations and conversations about disarmament have led only to a new wave of armaments, which is leaving far behind everything that was ever seen before. To build the revolutionary policy of the proletariat on a program of disarmament means to build it not on sand, but on the smoke screen of militarism.

The strangulation of the class struggle in the cause of an unhindered progress of imperialist slaughter can be ensured only with the mediation of the leaders of the mass workers' organizations. The slogans under which this task was fulfilled in 1914: "The last war", "War against Prussian militarism", "War for democracy", are too well discredited by the history of the last two decades. "Collective security" and "general disarmament" are their substitutes. Under the guise of supporting the League of Nations, the leaders of the workers' organizations of Europe are preparing a new edition of the "sacred union", a thing no less necessary for war than tanks, aeroplanes, and the "forbidden" poison gases.

The Third International was born of an indignant protest against social patriotism. But the revolutionary charge placed in it by the October revolution is long ago expended. The Communist International now stands under the banner of the League of Nations, as does the Second International, only with a fresher store of cynicism. When the British Socialist, Sir Stafford Cripps, called the League of Nations an international union of brigands, which was more impolite than unjust, the London Times ironically asked: "In that case, how explain the adherence of the Soviet Union to the League of Nations?" It is not easy to answer. Thus the Moscow bureaucracy brings its powerful support to that social patriotism, to which the October revolution dealt a crushing blow.

Roy Howard tried to get a little illumination on this point also. What is the state of affairs-he asked Stalin-as to plans and intentions in regard to world revolution?

"We never had any such plans or intentions." But, well.... "This is the result of a misunderstanding."


"A tragic misunderstanding?"


"No, comic, or, if you please, tragi-comic." The quotation is verbatim. "What danger," Stalin continued, "can the surrounding states see in the ideas of the Soviet people if these states really sit firmly in the saddle?"

Yes, but suppose-the interviewer might ask-they do not sit so firm? Stalin adduced one more quieting argument:

"The idea of exporting a revolution is nonsense. Every country if it wants one will produce its own revolution, and if it doesn't, there will be no revolution. Thus, for instance, our country wanted to make a revolution and made it..."

Again, we have quoted verbatim. From the theory of socialism in a single country, it is a natural transition to that of revolution in a single country. For what purpose, then, does the International exist?-the interviewer might have asked. But he evidently knew the limits of legitimate curiosity. The reassuring explanations of Stalin, which are read not only by capitalists but by workers, are full of holes. Before "our country" desired to make a revolution, we imported the idea of Marxism for other countries, and made use of foreign revolutionary experience. For decades we had our emigres abroad who guided the struggle in Russia. We received moral and material aid from the workers' organizations of Europe and America. After our victory we organized, in 1919, the Communist International. We more than once announced the duty of the proletariat of countries in which the revolution had conquered to come to the aid of oppressed and insurrectionary classes, and that not only with ideas but if possible with arms. Nor did we limit ourselves to announcements. We in our own time aided the workers of Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Georgia with armed force. We made an attempt to bring aid to the revolting Polish proletariat by the campaign of the Red Army against Warsaw. We sent organizers and commanders to the help of the Chinese in revolution. In 1926, we collected millions of rubles for the aid of the British strikers. At present, this all seems to have been a misunderstanding. A tragic one? No, it is comic. No wonder Stalin has declared that to live, in the Soviet Union, has become "gay". Even the Communist International has changed from a serious to a comic personage.

Stalin would have made a more convincing impression upon his interviewer if, instead of slandering the past, he had openly contrasted the policy of Thermidor to the policy of October.

"In the eyes of Lenin," he might have said, "the League of Nations was a machine for the preparation of a new imperialist war. We see in it an instrument of peace. Lenin spoke of the inevitability of revolutionary wars. We consider the idea of exporting revolution nonsense. Lenin denounced the union of the proletariat with the imperialist bourgeoisie as treason. We with all our power impel the international proletariat along this road. Lenin slashed the slogan of disarmament under capitalism as a deceit of the workers. We build our whole policy upon this slogan. Your tragi-comic misunderstand"-Stalin might have concluded-"lies in your taking us for the continuers of Bolshevism, when we are in fact its gravediggers."

Leon Trotsky, 1936