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New Left Review I/70, November-December 1971

Ben Brewster

Communication on Ceylon and China

Dear Comrades,

I feel obliged to express my dissent from the views on the policies of the People’s Republic of China expressed in the article on ‘The Ceylonese Insurrection’ in nlr 69 (pp. 86–7). The article attacks the agreement whereby China provides Ceylon with economic aid and Chou En-lai’s message to Sirimavo Bandaranaike for violating ‘one of the most basic principles of Marxism and of Leninism’, ‘that when the masses rise, revolutionaries support them, even if their action is adventurist, as Marx did over the Paris Commune and Lenin did over the July days.’ To argue in this way is to reject the principles of what was originally called the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, but which I take today to imply the following: that the proletarian revolution will not spread rapidly and evenly over the world from one or two centres, but on the contrary will make geographically localized advances followed by temporary stabilization and even retreat, over a long period; that socialist states will therefore have to survive for considerable periods in co-existence with an imperialist world itself riven by shifting internal contradictions; and that therefore socialist governments will be faced with a relatively autonomous arena of socialist struggle at the diplomatic level, defined by its own changing conjuncture, to which they will have to adjust their external policies. In this perspective, the examples of Marx and Lenin invoked are irrelevant; Marx in 1871 was the leader of a workers’ international faced with a revolution in what was then the world’s storm centre; Lenin in July 1917 was the leader of a revolutionary party faced with action by the very masses whose vanguard he was organizing; but Chou En-lai in 1971 is the Prime Minister of a socialist state acting in what is clearly a turning-point in the development of the world imperialist system. However, the footnote on p.87 goes even further: ‘The Chinese provision of economic aid to Ceylon could in isolation have been seen as a part of legitimate state policy, a continuation of China’s earlier economic aid to Ceylon. But the letter to Bandaranaike giving explicit political support and the timing of the loan leave no doubt that Chinese policy is of another character altogether.’ What this ‘other character’ is is not stated, but it seems to be implied that the prc deliberately chose this opportunity to help crush a revolutionary movement. This may not be what the author meant, but it is a possible reading, and therefore one I must dissociate myself from. Moreover it is reinforced by the talk in the Themes of an ‘infamous coalition of powers’, and a ‘Holy Alliance’ for ‘the victory of counter-revolution’, of which China is a part. This directly suggests that in this instance the prc has formed a conscious alliance with the imperialist powers against world revolution. No evidence whatever is offered for this assertion, which I reject. Finally, Chou En-lai is not providing himself with an ‘ideological cover’ in referring to Mao Tse-tung in his message to Bandaranaike. That message, and the telegram to Yahya Khan denounced in the Themes of nlr 68, both fall within the guidelines suggested not only by the ‘Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ explicitly referred to by Chou En-lai, but also by texts dating back to 1946 such as ‘On the Chungking Negotiations’ and ‘Some Points in Appraisal of the Present International Situation’: ‘Subject to the principle of not damaging the fundamental interests of the people, it is permissible to make certain concessions in exchange for peace and democracy.’ ‘This kind of compromise means compromise on some issues, including even important ones . . . Such compromise does not require the people in the countries of the capitalist world to follow suit and make compromises at home.’ The revolutionary or nonrevolutionary nature of Chou En-lai’s message and telegram cannot be established by comparing them with ‘basic principles of Marxism and Leninism’ considered sub specie aeternitatis, but only by a concrete analysis of the present international conjuncture and the role of Chinese policy within it.

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Ben Brewster, ‘Communication on Ceylon and China’, NLR I/70: £3

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