Rothbard Wrong on Finland and Soviet Russia

by Tim Starr:

I’ve been asked by Mikko Ellila to comment on Rothbard’s interpretation of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, as he presented it in his libertarian manifesto, “For A New Liberty” (FANL). It’s been a very long time since I’ve read FANL, and I wasn’t terribly impressed with it at the time since I was already quite familiar with the basics of libertarian theory. However, I wasn’t very familiar with Soviet history at the time, so I didn’t notice how strange many of his claims about it are. Since Mikko is himself Finnish, I thought I’d start with Rothbard’s account of the Winter War, fought between the Soviet Union after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and before the German invasion of Russia:

“The old pre-World War I Russia had now been restored with the exception of Finland. But Finland was prepared to fight. Here the Russians demanded not the reincorporation of Finland as a whole, but only of parts of the Karelian Isthmus which were ethnically Russian. When the Finns refused this demand, the “Winter War” (1939-1940) between Russia and Finland ensued, which ended with the Finns conceding only Russian Karelia.”

– Rothbard, “For A New Liberty,” p. 285

While I’ve read several books which describe the Winter War and its causes, this is the first time I’ve read the claim that there was anyone in Finnish Karelia who was ethnically Russian, much less that Stalin’s demands were intended to incorporate them into Soviet territory. My sources all cite other demands made by Stalin, with other purposes. . . . .


Trotter also confirms that Stalin set up his own puppet government for Finland, which promptly signed a treaty ceding all Finnish territory to the Soviet Union. But he doesn’t mention any ethnic Russians inhabiting Finnish Karelia or any demands by Stalin for the incorporation of the territory on which they were living into the Soviet Union. Frankly, I’m at a loss as to where Rothbard got this argument and what factual evidence there is to support it. Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy of FANL, so I can’t check his footnotes. Rothbard’s argument doesn’t even square with the usual line taken by pro-Soviet revisionists, which is that Russian foreign policy was basically the same as Tsarist Russian foreign policy. But, as even Rothbard’s quote above makes clear, restoration of the Tsarist Empire would mean the total reincorporation of Finland, since Finland was part of the Tsar’s territory before the Bolshevik Revolution.

That’s not all Rothbard had to say about Finland, however:

“The cold warriors find it difficult to explain Russian actions in Finland. If Russia is always hell-bent to impose Communist rule wherever it can, why the “soft line” in Finland? The only plausible explanation is that its motivation is security for the Russian nation-state against attack, with the success of world communism playing a very minor role in its scale of priorities.”

– FANL, p. 287

The “soft line” Rothbard’s referring to is the limited territorial concessions Finland made to Russia after WWII, along with neutrality in the Cold War, in exchange for Russia letting Finland keep most of its territory. Actually, this is not so difficult to explain: the Red Army never successfully conquered and occupied Finland, thanks to the valiant defense the Finns made against the Soviets at the Mannerheim Line in the Winter War. By the end of WWII, the Soviets did have the military capability to defeat Finland, thanks to the improvements that had been made since their defeat by Finland in 1940 – improvements which were partly motivated by the Finnish victory. However, these improvements were made in large part because of supplies and equipment the Soviets had gotten from the Western Allies, mainly the USA, and the Soviets were only able to defeat Germany thanks to the support of the Western Allies. This put a constraint upon Soviet actions that hadn’t been present in 1940: In order to keep getting support from the Western Allies, Stalin had to refrain from acting in ways of which the Western Allies would disapprove. Stalin even promised to hold free elections in the countries that had been occupied by the Red Army, to maintain a united front with the Western Allies. It was only after none of those elections resulted in victory for any of Stalin’s Communist parties that he proceeded to puppetize those countries by force. But, by that time, the West was opposing any extension of the Soviet sphere of influence by military invasion, so it was too late for Stalin to invade Finland and puppetize it without risking military resistance by the West, which Stalin wanted to avoid above all else.

So, Rothbard’s description of the Cold War view of Soviet foreign policy is in need of a bit of modification, or clarification: the Soviet Union WAS hell-bent on imposing Communist rule wherever it could, but it couldn’t do it when facing resistance by military forces capable of resisting the Red Army, either the Finns at the time of the Winter War, or the Western Allies in post-war era. By using the case of Finland the way he does, Rothbard is trying to use an example of successful military resistance to Soviet expansionism to argue that there was no such thing as Soviet expansionism by military means.

. . . .

After having discussed Rothbard’s misinterpretation of the Winter War, I now turn to his denial that Soviet foreign policy was based upon aggressive military expansion:

“First, there is no doubt that the Soviets, along with all other Marxist-Leninists, would like to replace all existing social systems by Communist regimes. But such a sentiment, of course, scarcely implies any sort of realistic threat of attack – just as an ill wish in private life can hardly be grounds for realistic expectation of imminent aggression.” – Rothbard, “For A New Liberty,” p. 282

“Any idea of “exporting” communism to other countries on the backs of the Soviet military is totally contradictory to Marxist-Leninist theory.” – ibid, p. 283

“Thus, fortuitously, from a mixture of theoretical and practical grounds of their own, the Soviets arrived early at what libertarians consider to be the only proper and principled foreign policy.” – ibid, pp. 283-284

The most problematic of Rothbard’s above assertions is that exportation of Communism by means of Soviet military might is contrary to Marxist-Leninist theory. Lenin was the primary author of Marxism-Leninism, but this alleged “contradiction” didn’t stop him from authorizing the Red Army to invade Poland in the 1920s, presumably with the intent of Bolshevizing Poland once it was conquered. Lenin also actively supported attempts to overthrow “bourgeois” regimes like those of Germany and Hungary in the aftermath of WWI, albeit by means of domestic insurrection rather than invasion by the Red Army. However, this was because the Red Army was kept plenty busy fighting the Whites, the Greens, and the peasants in the Russian Civil War, not because of any theoretical objection.

While Lenin originated Marxism-Leninism, Stalin was the first to systematically present it in his book, “Foundations of Leninism.” Stalin was also unable to find any theoretical objection to spreading Communism by military might, as proven by the fact that he proceeded to do so as soon as he had favorable international conditions for doing so. His first attempt was in his provision of Comintern, KGB, and Red Army support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, which led to the Spanish Republican Army being almost entirely under the command of officers who were Soviet puppets. This failed because of an anti-Communist rebellion within the Spanish Republican Army against the Soviet puppets, enabling the Nationalists to win the war. However, Stalin didn’t really care that much about Spain, and he cut off support for the Republicans after he gave up on the hope of a collective security alliance with the West against Germany, and decided on an alliance with Germany to carve up Eastern Europe between himself and Hitler instead. (See “Spain Betrayed,” edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov on Soviet involvement in the Spanish Civil War.)

Upon signing the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, Stalin proceeded to occupy half of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia with the Red Army, and started the process of Sovietizing those countries. In Poland, the Soviets actually mass-murdered people faster than the Nazis did in their half of Poland until the German invasion of Russia in June of 1941. In the aftermath of WWII, all of the countries that had been occupied by the Red Army were Sovietized, with the only exceptions being Austria and Finland. I’ve already discussed why Finland wasn’t Sovietized. Austria wasn’t Sovietized because it had been jointly occupied by the Western Allies as well as the Soviets, the Allies agreed to neutralize Austria, and Austria was small potatoes compared to the rest of occupied Europe. Between 1945 and 1950, countries Sovietized by Stalin while under Soviet military occupation included East Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania. Yugoslavia was originally Sovietized, until Tito’s split with Stalin over the question of whether to continue supporting the Communists in the Greek Civil War. Stalin wanted that support to stop, because he was too afraid of Western intervention, while Tito wanted it to continue. Stalin also authorized Kim Il-Sung’s invasion of South Korea, and provided military assistance to North Korea in the Korean War, including tanks and Soviet pilots flying Soviet fighter planes.

The fact that Stalin did export Communism with the T-34 tanks and the rest of the might of the Red Army in the aftermath of WWII makes it rather irrelevant whether such aggressive military expansion was contrary to the official ideology of the Soviet Union, even if we accept that allegation for the sake of argument. What matters is how the Soviet Union actually behaved, and the Soviet Union manifestly did present a clear and present military threat to other countries wherever it wasn’t clearly opposed by superior military forces.

As for the Soviet Union arriving at what Rothbard considered the “only principled and proper foreign policy” for libertarians, he is referring to Khruschev’s policy of “peaceful coexistence.” That policy was the exception to the rule for the Soviet Union, and was largely the result of the Soviet Union facing a USA and its allies in NATO and SEATO that was determined to oppose Soviet aggression with overwhelming military might. It also didn’t last very long, as Khruschev was soon ousted by the hard-liners in the Politburo and replaced by Brezhnev, who decided upon a policy of defending every existing Communist regime and adding new ones to the fold by covertly supporting revolutionary “national liberation” movements in the Third World. Cuba and Vietnam were the first field tests of this strategy, and between 1975 and 1980 about a dozen countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia fell to the Commies, until the election of Ronald Reagan, another Cold War hawk who went further than his predecessors by not only supporting containment of the Soviets but active rollback of Soviet puppet regimes as well, such as in Nicaragua, Cambodia, Angola, Afghanistan, etc.

“Peaceful coexistence” was Khruschev’s euphemism for keeping the ill-gotten gains of Soviet military conquests in Eastern Europe and elsewhere – millions of slaves, massive amounts of raw materials, agricultural produce, industrial equipment, and territory. Letting tyrannical conquerors keep their slaves & booty isn’t “peace,” it’s a permanent state of war between the tyrants & their subjects. This is hardly the “only principled and proper foreign policy” for libertarians, since libertarians are opposed to tyranny, aggression, slavery, mass-theft and mass-murder. It may be the best policy option in a particular situation, but a policy of containing or rolling back such tyranny and slavery could also be the best policy, too. Determining which of these options is best requires a thorough examination of the empirical facts of the situation. It can’t be answered by resort to a priori theory, nor by starting with your conclusions, looking for evidence that fits your conclusions, and ignoring or explaining away all evidence contrary to your conclusions. Unfortunately, this latter strategy appears to have been the one Rothbard used, to the detriment of his own scholarly integrity, and the credibility of his followers. Hopefully, those who’ve bought into his denial of Soviet aggressiveness will reconsider their agreement with him, have a look at the evidence against it, and make a more informed judgement.