50 Years Ago: Russia versus China

The powers of capitalism can never be frank about the reasons for their international conflicts. That is why the official propaganda machines always represent wars as clashes of ideology — clashes between cruelty and mercy, belligerence and amity, or simply between right and wrong.

This applies as much to those states which claim to be socialist as to the rest. The dispute between Russia and China, for example, is represented by both sides as an ideological clash; the Russians say the Chinese are warmongers, the Chinese accuse Russia of betraying a socialist revolution.

During the fighting last month at Damansky Island, in the Ussuri River, both Russia and China accused the other of ‘armed provocation’. The Russian protest complained of ‘adventuristic policy . . . reckless provocative actions . . .’ The Chinese loudspeakers blared out abuse about the ‘renegade, revisionist clique’ in Moscow.

In fact the fighting started for anything but ideological reasons. The Russian territory around Vladivostok was annexed under the Tsars in the 19th century. The Bolsheviks swore to return the land but that was one of those vows which were quietly forgotten in the rise of capitalism in Russia.

Since then Russia has poured an immense amount of capital into developing the area’s industries and communications. Vladivostok is an important naval base, and Russia’s only commercial outlet to the Pacific. And just like any other capitalist class, the rulers of Russia are anxious to protect their investments.

China, however, as a newly rising capitalist power is pressing to re-negotiate the treaties which lay down her frontiers (the reason, also, for the clashes with India in 1962), one of which is marked by the Ussuri. All of this combined to make a delicate and dangerous situation, which is not in any way lessened by the supposed ideological comradeship between the two states.

It is, in fact, a classical dispute between two capitalist powers. Very often these disputes start over something trivial, like a spit of sand in the Ussuri River. But the background is anything but trivial.

(Socialist Standard, April 1969)