We have seen that the massacres of the great French Revolution were not repeated in succeeding revolutions; that from 1830 to 1871 the revolutionary fighters, even when they were under the influence of the traditions established by the Regime of Terror, nevertheless in practice strove to be as humane as possible – in contrast to their enemies who, both before and after, developed the worst form of brutality in June 1848, as much as in May 1871.
During the whole of the nineteenth century we can observe a progressive humanising taking place among the working classes. Now, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Revolution in Russia and Germany has come, and has given rein to massacres, which remind us of the French Revolution of the eighteenth century. How can we explain this reversal? According to general ideas, humanity is a product of culture. We assume that man is by nature an evil unsociable creature with the instincts of beasts Of prey, ever ready to attack his neighbour, to oppress him, to torture and kill him. We believe further, that it is only after long progress in education and training, in other words, in Civilisation, that man acquires social sentiment, a sense of mutual assistance and of kindness, as well as of abhorrence of cruelty and murder.
This, idea is expressed in the language we employ, which uses the word “humanity” to describe those qualities that we have just mentioned, and distinguishes them from those other features, which are stigmatised as bestial (“bestis,” the beast) and brutal (“brutus,” the brute.) A great number of our ethnologists share this point of view, which is also that adopted by Lombroso and his school, who see in violent crime what they call atavism, a drop back into the sensient life of the animal precursors of man. Moreover, even bloodthirsty beasts of prey do not, as a rule, kill their own kind; and nothing justifies us in assuming that man is really by nature a beast of prey, with violent bloodthirsty instincts. We know nothing about the animal precursors of the human species, but we must assume that, among the animals of the present day, the human ape approaches them most nearly. Like these, the ancestor of man apparently lived on vegetable nourishment, which he occasionally supplemented with small animals, caterpillars, worms, reptiles, even small birds; but he never killed a large mammal in order to devour it. No ape does the like.
In the first place, the ape never carries on any murderous war against its own kind. From the very start, he has not the necessary organs for such. Single creatures may indulge in fights over their booty, or over a wife, and receive scratches but these scrimmages do not end fatally.
All this is changed in the case of man, as soon as his technical knowledge provides him with materials in addition to his natural organs, with tools and weapons of shell and sword. In this way he acquires the faculties of a beast of prey, and their development in him gives him all the functions and instincts of a beast of prey. Now he can kill larger animals and rend them. Vegetable nourishment thus loses its importance for him. The hunt and the shedding of blood became for him daily occupations. In this way, conflicts between two single individuals may lead to death. Nevertheless, the murder of whole peoples, namely war, cannot be explained by the invention of weapons alone. War presupposes a further cultivated development, namely, the grouping of people into close communities.
Since this point has hitherto been very little considered, and as I myself have hitherto not treated it sufficiently, a few remarks may here be made, although they lead us somewhat away from our subject. Without doubt man takes his origin from the social animals, but he distinguishes himself from them by the fact that he forms close communities. The social animals, as a rule, live in flocks and herds, which have very little internal cohesion. According to the conditions of life, to the supply of food, to the number of enemies, etc., these same individual creatures sometimes form themselves into immense herds. Another time they are split up into many small groups, and even into mere couples, until some more favourable opportunity brings them together again in large masses. Without any difficulty one individual can pass from one group to another. With man it is utterly different. It would lead us too far here to discuss to what this change is due, but the following short remarks may be made.
The animals’ means of communication between one another are dependent on the natural noises, which they instinctively make, as also on the method of speech contained in gesture and mimicry, which, however, they do not have to learn from each other, but which are innate in them. Hence every member of the community can equally well express itself in this manner, and be understood by all.
What distinguishes human beings from animals, apart from the use of tools, is articulated speech. Besides these tools, which are not given him at birth, but which he himself fashions, and the construction of which he must learn from his neighbours, there is a further means of understanding which likewise is not, born with him, but which his fellow-beings have developed as a result of their environment, and which he himself must learn from them. This means of communication is not given to the whole community from the start, but is differently formed in different places. Through this method of speech, social unity becomes stronger and more intimate, since, through it, understanding and community of labour are rendered easier and more varied. Through these differences the several tribes and groups of mankind are, from the very start, kept apart one from the other. Therefore each will be forced to remain with that particular tribe or group whose speech he has learnt. He cannot communicate with others. He feels strange and uncomfortable when he is among them. In addition to this another factor arises. Speech permits single individuals to establish their relations with one another. It also permits memories of the past to be recorded. In other words, it forms a conservative element. The fully developed animal easily forgets its parents and the members of its family, which it is unable to distinguish from other creatures of its kind. But the human being, his whole life long, can preserve these relations. He can even recognise and remember the parents of his own parents and the children of his own children, as well as the children of his brothers and sisters, and so on.
It is generally assumed that the family is something ordained by nature, and that the “voice of blood” is proof of this fact. In reality it is the “voice of speech” that is created. Without some indication of relationship no family can exist as a permanent institution. “The voice of blood” ceases in the case of animals, so soon as the young creatures are fledged and have become independent. This makes it all the more ridiculous, when people of to-day attempt to explain not only family, but even national ties as being the result of the “voice of blood”; as, for instance, when the impulse of the German Austrians towards union with the Germans of the Empire is given as an example of the secret law of this “voice.” Actually in German Austria there are living more men of non-German origin, especially Czechs, than men directly connected with the German Empire.
The intimate nature of a family was further enhanced by the formation of households and by the accumulation of private property in the shape of tools and weapons, utensils of all kinds, which survive the possessor. For, after his death, all such private property went to those members of the family who lived in closest communication with him, and was therefore a good reason for maintaining the permanency of this communication to his death. The intimacy of the stock was further preserved through possessions of another kind, that is, through the possession of the land, which was the common property of the stock. Even animals prefer to live in those parts in which they have been brought up, and where they are, so to speak, at home; in which every source of food is known to them, every corner, and every dangerous spot. Nevertheless, the limits of such parts are not very closely drawn, and an individual member of the stock, which cannot find sufficient food in the locality, or because of danger in some way, can without difficulty extend the range of his sphere, until he comes into a different region that pleases him better. But there, sooner or later, he attaches himself to another to tribe.
This is different in the more intimate societies of human beings. Whoever comes into another province finds himself among a group of men and women he cannot understand. Primitive man does not adapt himself to new conditions by passing into new regions thinly populated, and there settling. This adaptation is to be found only in a higher state of culture, and even there in an imperfect state. On the contrary, the herd or stock keeps together, and seeks to extend its sphere at the cost of its neighbours. Thus we have the beginnings of war, and of race murder, as soon as the technique of armies has become sufficiently highly developed. Thus we see what we call “brutality” is not due to the animal precursors of man, but is rather a product of his development. Ethical instincts themselves, the feeling for solidarity, of sympathy for others, of rendering assistance, in the course of man’s development change their character. In the, case of the social animals, these instincts are shared in common by all the individual members of like species.
In the case of man, however, their sphere of influence is confined to the members of the immediate circle. Whoever is outside this circle is, for such a man, an object of indifference. He has no sympathy for him and is often directly hostile. As inter-communication develops, the sphere of society, a, member of which our “individual man” feels himself to be, is enlarged also. To-day we are, as it were, reverting to the origins of human development; and the sphere of our social and ethical feelings is again beginning to extend itself to all individuals of like species, in other wards, to the whole human race. But, generally speaking, this is more an ideal towards which we are very slowly striving. At the same time, economic development, through the division of labour and increasing variety of social communications, has led to the constitution of single, circumscribed societies within the State, which again, in its turn, is broken up into groups of varying kinds. These also become more or less separate communities, such as the nobility, families, ecclesiastical organisations, sects, guilds, etc. Each of these communities develops its own ethical ideals, which have effect only on the members of each particular community. And even these different communities can fall into disagreement with one another They are capable of developing great solidarity and sympathy for members of their own narrow group, at the same time showing a complete lack of charity towards other groups. Each individual may belong to several different social communities, with may belong and often opposing interests and ethical principles. The sharper the contradiction within the society, the greater will be the apposition between individual men. The ladies of the feudal barons of the Southern States were most charming and adorable to others of their own kind, full of generosity and sympathy; but their slaves they tortured unmercifully. The same man can show the most delicate feeling for the members of his family, and yet in his business relations be the most callous extortioner and pitiless taskmaster.
Culture does not necessarily, at the same time, help towards the humanising of conduct. On the other hand, it would be absurd to assume the contrary, and to regard the primitive state of nature as an idyllic condition of the Golden Age, from which we have been gradually falling away. In this connection we can distinguish two conflicting tendencies in the history of human development, of which either the one or the other becomes paramount according to the conditions at the time.
One tendency we have already discussed. It consists in the continuous improvement in the weapons for slaughter, as well as in the increasing of the farces of antagonism in man. It makes for the increase of national opposition, the opposition that arises between over-populated and under-populated regions; further, the opposition between poor people and rich people, between those who monopolise the treasures of nature, and others, who are forced to remain in unfruitful deserts. It leads, further, to the opposition between the industrially developed and the industrially backward. And finally, among the nations themselves, there arise different forms of expropriation and enslavement of man by man, whence arise hatred and cruelty.
A contrary tendency arises with the beginning of agriculture. In earlier methods of production, hunting and cattle-driving take the upper hand. Both cattle-driving and the hunt necessitate skill in arms, and cause the shedding of blood as a means to the maintenance of life, and as a means of defence against beasts of prey, which threaten the cattle at the dawn of civilisation. Agriculture, on the other hand, does not necessarily employ weapons. The husbandman often sees a friend in the wild boasts, because they attack other beasts of prey, which threaten to devour his crops; and the preserving of wild game, which is of importance to the huntsman, is disliked by the husbandman. Still more than in the case with agriculture is the use of weapons superfluous, as a means of production, in the case of the artisan and the intellectual worker. The time and material required for the fabrication of such weapons, and the learning of their employment is, to such men, in contrast to the huntsman and the cattle breeder, an economic extravagance, which they would reduce as much as possible. Thus the peasant, the artisan, and the intellectual become more and more amicable in nature; especially the last group, for the peasant and the artisan do need muscular strength to carry on their occupation. Such muscular strength stands in high honour with them, and is welcomed, not only in actual work but even in play, and especially in sports that involve competition. The intellectual, on the other hand, needs no other strength. The time the others devote to the development of their muscles he devotes to the acquirement of knowledge, or to the exercise of his brain. Whoever should endeavour to carry on a literary contest with weapons, other than those of the mind, would at once betray his inferiority. This contention is by no means disproved by the fact that, in German student circles, rowdy and bullying manners often come to the fore. They are the result of the brutal behaviour, characteristic of the religious strife that led up to the Thirty Years’ War.
The priestly castes of the ancient world, as well as the spiritual leaders of Christianity, showed, in general, aversion to the shedding of blood and to acts of violence, at any rate so long as they did not belong to the ruling or exploiting classes. Such also was true of the intellectuals of the eighteenth century. When, however, the intellectuals themselves became exploiters, they did not always give evidence of the same peaceable tendencies. Where they are not so inclined, it is the same with them as with the peasants, the artisans, and the proletarians. Man in such a case is regarded not as a means for the end of others, but as a means for his own ends, or as a means for the ends of the community at large; not, however, as means for the ends of other individuals. Kant’s ethics correspond exactly to this standpoint. Only for Kant ethics do not form a mere moral code for particular classes or times, but rather a permanent moral law, over and beyond the world of appearances, to which the Almighty himself is subject, since even for Him it is forbidden to make use of man as mere means. (For what?) (Cf. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd edition, section 5, The existence of God as a postulate of pure practical reason.)
However this attitude may have arisen, there resulted, as a consequence, the greatest respect for, human personality, and for the sanctity of human life and human happiness. But these peace-loving tendencies already began to show to disadvantage in the early beginnings of agricultural and communal life, for the peaceable classes of the various nations were the most defenceless. They were exploited by armed groups, which. lorded it over them as a war-like aristocracy, and now, in their turn, with rigorous exclusiveness betook themselves to the hunt, to war and to slaughter, as formerly the huntsman and cattle-breeders had done. So they erected into a principle the methods anal instincts of beasts of prey, in their attitude towards their fellow-men who were hostile to them.
Thus brutality and humanity became two characteristics of civilised society. According to changing conditions, either one or the other of these characteristics prevailed. In Ancient Rome the whole population was involved in a policy of conquest. The Romans, thanks to their warlike superiority, succeeded in making all the countries of the Mediterranean servile to them. The whole population lived on the exploitation of these lands. They became enthusiastic for war, and upheld the most merciless conduct of war; and as success in war brought crowds of cheap slaves to the Romans, it ultimately became one of their pastimes to employ slaves in, the amphitheatres, to make them fight one another, and eventually kill each other for the delight of the populace. Gladiatorial contests, and the murdering of men as a mere pastime for am indolent mob of both high and low degree, mark the extreme limit of a most vulgar cruelty; and yet such facts represent the ancient Roman city, not in the condition of barbarity but at the height of its civilisation. These gladiatorial contests did not cease until the Roman State had been brought down from its high level of “culture,” through the incursion of barbarians who were living on the borders.
In the course of economic developments, alongside of the war nobility there developed a capitalist class with two diverging tendencies. Being an exploiter, the capitalist regarded the man, from whose exploitation he lived, not as a means to that man’s end, but as a means to his own ends. In such an attitude them lurk already the germs of inhumanity and cruelty, and. it depends entirely upon conditions prevailing how far these germs will develop. Colonial policy was responsible for the bloodiest and most fearful atrocities. On the other hand, at the time of commercial monopoly, opposition arose between commercial capital and industrial capital. Commercial capital showed itself to be at this period warlike and unscrupulous. It massacred and plundered the people of India. It carried on slave-driving with negroes, and forced its various governments to embark on murderous and exhausting commercial wars. On the other hand, industrial capital has had to pay the greater part of the costs of these wars, and has been thereby handicapped. It stands, therefore, in direct apposition to such methods, and indeed indignantly so. Human sympathy comes to the surface, and becomes incensed over the treatment of the black slaves in the West Indies, all the while, however, cruelly torturing the white human beings of England by overwork at starvation wages. But not even the proletariat shown at this stage any consistent and unified tendency. We have seen that the conditions of life forced the proletariat to regard human life as something sacred. Since it is not merely an exploiting, but rather an exploited class, it suffers most from the disregard of human life; so that war imposes upon it, apart from expense, as in the case of Ancient Rome, burdens and dangers; whereas success and the booty derived from war go to the ruling classes alone. All this inspires the proletariat with a horror of all slaughter and of every kind of cruelty. Nevertheless the proletariat does rat appear on. the historical stage at the same tine as the industrial proletariat. Tendencies towards proletarianism appear among the masses long before modern industrial manufacture has become developed through the downfall of feudalism, which imposes upon the peasants heavier taxes so that the peasants’ occupation is adversely affected, and the rats of production rapidly sinks.
The result is, that agriculture thus has to turn away more and more labourers, and consequently the burden of labour increases on those who remain behind. Hence at such a. time superfluous labour finds little chance of being taken on in industrial occupation, since industry itself is circumscribed by guilds. Therefore countless masses of the unemployed, starving and despairing proletariat swarm the country; and because they themselves are incapable of productive labour, they have recourse to all kinds of parasitical means of livelihood, from begging and stealing to downright robbery. Living in utter misery, excluded from and despised by society, these people are naturally filled with a wild hatred against all society; and the hatred increases, because those in power, incapable and unwilling to take some measures towards social reform, resort to terrorism. The starving people have to be checked, by means of frightfulness, from begging from stealing, from cheating, from prostitution and robbery. The most fearful punishments were thus inflicted on these unfortunate people. “A real bloody war against vagabondage,” as Marx described it in his book in Capital, which gives many examples of this kind of legislation. (Popular edition, pp.664 and following.) The result was the same as that which any reign of terror produces. It lowers social products, without being able to change the ground from whence those products arise. The number of criminals did not diminish, however much they might be sent to the galley-ships, or however much they might be hanged and tortured. For those who survived there remained no other choice than that of leading the life of swindlers. Hence arose continual conflict with the police. The only noticeable result was the increasing demoralisation of the proletariat, whose hatred and rage, and whose thirst for blood and cruelty were all increased by the horrors and cruelties of the executions that took place. Of course. this was true in the first place only of the criminal section of the proletariat. This very section was at that time so numerous, and was connected by so many ties of relationship and comradeship with the elements of the working-class proletariat, (as also with the lower strata of the petty bourgeoisie as well as of the peasantry, who all stood more or less with one foot in the bog of evil influences), that even their own ways of thinking and feeling were affected by them. As a consequence, all feelings for humanity were, at the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution, confined to the intellectuals, and to those strata of the well-to-do sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the capitalists and industrials, who were influenced by the intellectuals. In the proletariat itself, and in those strata standing in closest relation with it, the coarsening and brutalising that resulted from this bloody legislation often came to the light of day, as soon as the power of the State, under whose pressure all this lay hidden, finally broke down.
In view of the treatment meted out to the poorest elements of the masses by the ruling classes, it is not, to be wondered at that the revolutionary elements, so soon as they could operate freely, often gave to the struggle a wild and cruel character, thus turning the great revolution into one of a particularly sanguinary character. Nevertheless it would be a mistake to class all revolutionary massacres under one head. One must moreover distinguish between excesses, to which a brutalised people, in the passion aroused by struggle and despair, or out of thoughtless fear, allowed itself to give way: and those excesses, which are the result of a pre-considered system of training, and which are introduced into the State system, in the form of carefully-planned legislation, by those in power, in order to grind down elements, which seemed to those rulers to be dangerous.
Atrocities which sprang spontaneously from the people we find already at the beginning of the revolution; but the commencement of the Reign of Terror dates from the summer of the year 1793, at the time when the Girondins were arrested and executed. The people showed their brutality as early as the day of the storming of the Bastille, when the garrison capitulated. Same were killed; others had their heads hacked off, which were triumphantly carried round on pikes. This parading of heads on pikes happened often enough during the course of the revolution. The thirst for blood and cruelty increased when it came. to a war of the Revolution with the monarchs of Europe. When the Prussian army was marching on Paris and the Prussian Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Brunswick, in his manifesto, threatened Paris with total destruction, rumours as to a conspiracy of the aristocrats throughout the land in support of the external enemy were rampant. Then did the Parisians rise in uncontrolled and fearful rage, in order to annihilate the political prisoners in the prisons. That took place on September 2nd, 1792. This massacre, which cost 3,000 men their lives, represented the height of the horrors of the great revolution. A very intoxication for blood seized these crowds of executioners. They were not content with killing. They literally bathed with delirious delight in blood.
The Princess de Lamballe, whose whole crime consisted merely in being a friend of the Queen, was not only killed; but her body was cut open and her heart torn out. Her head was put on a pike, and brought to the imprisoned Queen before the window. At the sight of this horror the Queen swooned away.
Even acts of mercy took on a cruel form. An example may be found in the experience that happened to Mme. de Sombreuill, who at the time of the September massacres was in prison with her father. A certain M. de Saint Mart, who was near her father, had his skull split open. Her father was to suffer the same fate; whereupon she in desperation covered him with her own body, and fought for a long time, until she succeeded, after having received three wounds, in moving these men.
One of them took a glass, poured therein blood that was flowing from the head of the murdered M. de Saint Mart, mixed it with wine and powder, and said that if she would drink that to the health of the nation she could save her father. She did this without a shudder, and was forthwith carried out by these selfsame men.
(This report is presented in the collection of Letters from the French Revolution, by Gustav Landauer, 2nd volume, p.176, which was finished in the summer before the latest German Revolution. The Preface, dated June, 1918, closes with the following remark: “An intimate knowledge of the spirit and the tragedy of the Revolution should be of help to us in the serious times that now confront us.” The unfortunate man little suspected how soon, in these “serious times,” the tragedy of the Revolution would be fulfilled on his own person.)
There is no doubt that the cruelty of the enraged and desperate masses in the Revolution was terrible. But one should not blame the Revolution alone for that, even if one is justified in ever blaming mental occurrences of this kind. They were the result of the treatment that had been meted out to the people by high authority for many a long day. Just one example.
In the year 1757 a man, Damiens by name, attempted the life of Louis XV. He attacked him with a kind of penknife, which proved to be quite harmless. But the revenge for this deed was terrible. Damiens’ right hand was hacked off, and burnt before his own eyes. Wounds were made in his arms, legs and chest, and boiling oil and molten lead were poured into these wounds. Then they bound each of his limbs to horses, and drove the animals each in different directions, so that his whole body was literally torn to pieces. This infamous torture was executed in full publicity, in order to make an effect on the crowd. The effect, alas, we know.
Such barbarities were perpetrated till right into the time of the Revolution. It was really the Revolution that finally brought them to an end. But still, on August 13th, 1789, Gaultier de Biauzat made the following report from Versailles:
Last Tuesday, about midday, the people of Versailles succeeded in preventing the execution of a criminal, who had been condemned, on account of patricide, to be bound alive to a wheel and burnt. (Landauer’s Letters, volume 1, p.315.)
“These atrocities committed by those in higher authority preceded those perpetrated by the masses. The slaughter, which the masses engaged in, found no approbation from the acknowledged leaders of the Revolution. Indeed, they inveighed bitterly against such deeds. Such was the case with the September massacres, which have been quite falsely attributed to those leaders. If one could attach any blame to them, it would be, at the very most, that they were unable to restrain the rage of the mob. This rage was so terrible, so fearful and intimidating, that nobody dared to risk falling a victim to it, not even the Girondins. The Commissioners of the Commune endeavoured, with danger to their own lives, to rescue the ladies in immediate attendance on the Queen; and they succeeded in every ease with one exception, that of the Princess de Lamballe, whom we mentioned above.” (Kropotkin’s French Revolution, (volume 2, p.5.) Among those who were most incensed over the September massacres was Robespierre. He cried bitterly, “Blood, ever and always blood. These miserable people will end in drowning the Revolution in blood.” (Louis Blanc, French Revolution, volume 2, p.207.)
Even Marat himself recoiled horror-stricken before those massacres. “It is characteristic of Marat himself, a fact which according to my knowledge has not yet been mentioned by any historian, that he openly disavowed the September massacres, or at least bitterly regretted them – the self-same Marat, who recommended them in his issue of August 19th, and the benefit of which massacres he, on September 2nd, wished to extend to the whole of France.” (Jean Jaurès, La Convention, volume 1, p.75.)
Needless to say, in the case of Marat it was more political consideration than regard for humanity that made him disavow the September massacres. Robespierre, on the other hand, belonged to the intellectuals, who were fundamentally opposed to any shedding of blood. This he proved in the Constituent Assembly, in the discussion on May 17th, 1791, over the new penal law. At the discussion of the new penal law, when the death penalty came under consideration, Robespierre was among those who most vehemently opposed this penalty, on the ground that it did not prevent crime, but merely made the populace more brutal and more inclined to deeds of violence. His efforts were frustrated. The death penalty remained. Only the most horrible forms of its execution were to be prohibited. Decapitation only was retained. This decision formed one of the very rare occasions that caused Marat to express his approval of the National Assembly, in opposition to Robespierre. Two years later Robespierre found himself on Marat’s side, and was obliged to renounce his opposition to the death penalty. From henceforward this penalty was his chief political weapon, even against his own political friends.
We have already urged that the well-planned and orderly execution of terrorist methods should not be classed with the excesses of an excited mob. For these excesses had their origin among the uncultivated and coarse elements of the populace, whereas the Regime of Terror, was maintained by highly cultivated men who were filled with the most humane feelings. This Regime of Terror was the result of the conditions then existent, and was different in origin from the spontaneous atrocities. These latter were a result of the merciless legislation of the old regime against the poverty-stricken masses; whereas the Regime of Terror was forced on the Jacobins because they, in the most appalling circumstances and in the midst of a war, which had come about through the misery of the decaying masses, and only became paramount when the Jacobins came into power, found themselves face to face with a task that was insoluble. The task they had to solve was to preserve bourgeois society and private property, and at the same time to do away with the misery of the people. The result of this was that they found themselves in a most desperate position, out of which they could extricate themselves only by the employment of the very means of which they themselves disapproved, and of whose uselessness they were perfectly well aware. It was the very misery of the masses that caused the old regime to proceed to its bloody legislation, and to have recourse to terrorism. Indeed, the general misery itself gave rise to this bloody legislation, to the terrorism of the new regime. The only difference was, that the ancient State endeavoured to gain the mastery over the wretched populace, by beheading and ill-treating the poor; whereas the new State sought to diminish the misery of the masses, by beheading – without ill-treating – the rich and their servants. Yet the one failed of its object just as did the other. But even in this respect there was a difference. The existence of the old regime did not depend upon whether the Regime of Terror destroyed the proletariat or not. The failure of terrorism was certainly a disagreeable fact, but it represented no serious danger for the old State, because the class that it wished to keep under, namely, the mob proletariat, was quite incapable, by its own strength, of ever gaining the upper hand, and was, from an economic point of view, a completely negligible factor. The new regime, on the other hand, was bankrupt, and went to pieces as soon as its terrorism failed. For the class that it tried to keep under, namely, the bourgeoisie, was the very one which, under the circumstances, was best calculated to gain the supremacy; and at that, time it was, economically considered, indispensable. The repression of this bourgeois class hindered social development and production, and in consequence gave rise to still greater misery, even among the very people who should have derived advantage from the Reign of Terror. And a still greater difference distinguishes the old from the new “Reign of Terror.” In the case of the former, it corresponded entirely with the ethics of the circles that directed it. They were not necessarily unfaithful to themselves, by putting terrorism into practice. It appeared to them to be a perfectly obvious and justifiable means. The new Reign of Terror, however, was set up in absolute opposition to the ethics of the class that put it into execution. From the very beginning, therefore, the terrorists suffered from a bad conscience, which they endeavoured to salve by all sorts of sophistry, but which nevertheless undermined their moral strength, lessened their authority, and increased the friction and the insecurity then existing, and even rendered corrupt many of their members. Even if there be no absolute “morality” – existing in the world beyond, and even supposing that the morality of a particular time, of a particular country, or of a particular class, is something relative, ethics do remain the strongest social bond, and the stoutest support in all problems and conflicts of life. Nothing can be worse than unfaithfulness to oneself, or to act against those ethical principles that one has acknowledged as forming the categorical imperative. It was the result of all this which contributed largely to the complete destruction of the Reign of Terror, as soon as it met with energetic opposition. How quickly the surviving terrorists became converted to quite other views! The legitimate Monarchists were for Napoleon a far greater danger than the old Republicans. This was proof of how seriously the “morality” of these latter had suffered in the Reign of Terror.
The great French Revolution belongs to the most sanguinary epoch of world history, and many people have drawn the conclusion that the shedding of blood is one of the indispensable factors in a real revolution. In consequence they have either condemned the Revolution or glorified slaughter. As a matter of fact, the Revolution of 1789 itself removed some of the most important features which gave the Revolution so cruel and violent a character, and prepared the way for milder forms of future revolutions. It accomplished this, on the one hand, by putting aside feudalism and by encouraging industrial capital, which had the effect of turning the masses of the proletariat from being mere vagabonds into wage-earners; and, on the other hand, by starting a movement, which sooner or later was to end with the triumph of democracy. And finally, out of the study of the Revolution, as also of capitalism, a theory arose which enabled the proletarian party, in every given moment, to take some practical action, the object of which lay within the bounds of possibility; so that there was no reason for it to fall into one of those blind alleys, which would only lead to a Reign of Terror. Through the Revolution the peasant was emancipated, and became master of his own land. As a result, land economy reached a higher stage and produced greater returns, of which the peasants had the benefit; and therefore there was a decrease in the amount of superfluous labour that had abandoned agricultural work. On the other hand, there was a great incursion of men coming from the land, who were now seeking employment in the town. All the old guild restrictions had broken dawn; manual labour could develop itself unimpeded. It is true that, in one way after the other, such labour was adversely affected by the rising industrial capital; but even this helped to develop, with its rapid increase, large demands for labour. The industrial proletariat now became a special class with a special class-consciousness, which became more and more pronounced, and differed from the mob proletariat.
Under capital the position of the industrial proletariat had certainly deteriorated, in comparison with that of the independent labourer at the time when manual labour was prosperous, On the other handy capital certainly improved the position of labour as against the mob proletariat. A mob proletariat is, as a class, incapable of struggle; whereas the industrial proletariat, by its class struggles and by its organisation obtained a marvellous result and a remarkable intellectual and moral impetus. In the very beginning the industrial proletariat was dreadfully kept under. by capital, not only economically, but also morally so. In its housing conditions, in the meagreness and uncertainty of its existence, in its ignorance, it was not far removed from the mob proletariat. Indeed, it stood in many respects below it on account of the monotony of its life, as a result of the continuous oppression of factory discipline, which excluded all liberty of action, through the callous sweating of women and children.
As a result, the baldness of the more powerful elements of the mob proletariat was absent from the working proletariat. Hence it became less sensitive, but it did not thereby get rid of its coarseness. In such a condition it would have been quite impossible to think of emancipation. Only after a long time could a man, by engaging in continuous class struggle, expect to extricate himself from the seemingly hopeless bog that threatened to engulf him. The more this process went on, the more were the tendencies towards humanisation, which came to light as the result of the conditions then prevailing, able to develop and grow. Favourable to these tendencies was the fact that, as a result of the Revolution and of its consequences, even the penal laws erected against the proletariat began to lose the cruel character that they had had before.
These are all the causes of the results which we have already notified, namely, that the revolutionary elements of the proletariat show themselves to have been a class filled with the greatest humanising force, especially in the movement that took place in the nineteenth century; and that they departed more and more from the brutal savagery that distinguished their forerunners at the time of the great French Revolution, and which even Engels observed in the early ’forties of the nineteenth century among the factory heads of England. At the same time, the causes that led to the Reign of Terror disappeared. Already after the collapse of this Reign of Terror, the more far-seeing friends of the proletariat clearly recognised that it could not lead to any emancipation based on bourgeois society. They came to the conclusion that this object could be achieved only by the doing away with private property, in respect to the means of production, and by the introduction of communal production. But they found neither the necessary material conditions among the capitalists, nor the psychical conditions among the proletariat; and they could not see that economical development and class struggle were at work to produce these conditions. Therefore, they endeavoured to solve the social question, and attempted to find a plan or formula which seemed possible of practical application, as soon as the necessary means were at their disposal. If the revolutionary proletariat accepted this idea and sought for power, not in some philanthropic millionaire, but in the political dictatorship alter the pattern of the first Paris Commune, every such attempt, when undertaken by a minority in the State, was of necessity bound to lead to a reign of terror similar to the rule of the first Paris Commune. In any case this attempt was at least rational. It did not seek any more to escape the consequences of bourgeois society and yet preserve this society, but it attempted to remove the consequences by destroying their foundation. But even this endeavour must have come to grief when an attempt was made to put this into practice, so long as the social conditions failed, which alone could remove the foundations they were attempting to destroy. It would have meant the attempt of a minority to impose upon a majority something that was impossible, or at least without purpose and even contrary to its interests. And that would have been possible only by resorting to means of force, which would have culminated in the necessity for terrorising by means of slaughter.
Such an attempt was frustrated, not only because the mass of labour at the time was only gradually adopting social ideas, but because the proletariat for many decades had no longer maintained so supreme a position as it had held in conjunction with those regarded with contempt such matters as free trade and the strike, because such things did not affect the system of wages. It was Marx and Engels who taught the workers the importance of the proletarian struggle for emancipation, of the economic problems and conflicts of the capitalist system of that time. Socialism for the proletariat schooled in Marxist thought thus ceased to be something that could at once be introduced and realised everywhere – and under any conditions.
Even where it did obtain political power, it introduce only so much of Socialism as was possible under the existing conditions, and in a form corresponding to those particular conditions. According to this conception, Socialism could not be introduced by means of a coup d’état. It was to be the result of along historical process. At the same time, the Socialists were for ever being urged to under take, in any given moment, only what was possible under the conditions, material and moral, then prevailing. If, therefore, everything was to be done with due consideration it would have been impossible for the Socialists to fail of anything they undertook, or for them to find themselves in a desperate condition, which should force them to act contrary to the spirit, of the proletariat and of Socialism, and have recourse to Terrorism.
In fact, since Marxism has led the Socialist movement, this latter, even up to the beginning of the great world war, has in nearly every one of its actions always been preserved from grave defects, and the idea of carrying anything out by means of Terrorism has completely dropped out of its programme. Much contributed to this result. At the same time in which Marxism became the dominant social doctrine; democracy had taken root in Western Europe, and had begun, as a result of its struggles there, to form a sound foundation for political life. In consequence of this, not only the enlightenment, and organisation of the proletariat facilitated, but also its insight into economic conditions as well as into the relative power of the classes increased. Hence all fantastic adventures were eliminated, as also was civil war, as a means of class struggle. In 1902 I wrote in my pamphlet The Social Revolution (chapter 6, Democracy)
“Democracy is one of the highest values, if for no other reason than because it makes possible higher forms of revolutionary struggle. This struggle will no longer be like that of 1789 or 1848, a struggle of unorganised masses without any political education, or without any insight into the relative powers of the struggling elements, and without any deeper understanding of the objects of the struggle and the means for its solution. It will be no longer a struggle of masses that let themselves be carried away by every disadvantage, and who do not become downhearted as the result of failure. On the other hand, election and the means thereto make it possible to take stock of oneself and of one’s enemies. They help towards a clear insight into the relative strength of the classes and parties. Further, they put a check on over-hasty action, and overcome defeat. They also help to make even the opponent himself recognise the untenable nature of his position, and often cause him voluntarily to abandon it, wherever such might prove to be a matter of life and death for him. Thus all struggle becomes less cruel and merciless, unless dependent on blind chance.”
As a result of the combined working of all these conditions, of the formation of the industrial proletariat, and of the elevation of this latter above the level of the mob proletariat; as a result, further, of the development of Socialist theory and the establishment of democracy, it was possible to put in the background the gloomy fears which Engels even in 1845 expressed in his book, The Position of the Working Classes in England, where he said:– “If the English middle-class does not reflect – and it seems to have no intention of doing so – there will follow a revolution, which will bear no comparison with any that has hitherto taken place. The proletariat, driven to despair, will seize their torches. The revenge of the people will betray such rage, of which not even the year 1793 can give us any idea. The war of the poor against the rich will be the most fearful that has ever been waged.” (2nd Edition, p.298.)
It must be said that Engels’ fears would have been justified only in the case of a revolution breaking out at the time he expected. Even in the ’forties his fears were still rather exaggerated, in spite of the fact that crowds of undeveloped people, especially Irish, had been engaged in industry. But Engels himself expected that, if the revolution would not come soon, the proletariat would have time to develop itself, and become imbued with a Socialist spirit, which would then cause the revolution to take some milder form.
“In proportion as the proletariat assimilates Socialist and Communist elements, will the shedding of blood, vengeance and rage decrease in the revolution.” The revolution expected by Engels came in 1848, but not in England. After the outbreak there began in all countries in Europe an epoch of capitalist development, which was accompanied by a growth of the economic, intellectual, and moral strength of the working-classes.
In the most progressive countries of Europe things rapidly changed. As early as 1872, a year after the Commune, Marx gave expression to the hope that, in countries like America, England and Holland, the proletariat would assume a peaceful form. Ever since that time, the rise of the proletariat has brought with it further progress. Yet no one with a keen insight into the matter can suppose that a monarchy based on militarism, such as the German, Austrian and Russian, can be overturned by means of force alone. But, even in this matter, people thought less of slaughter by actual weapons, and more and more of the one means best suited to the proletariat for obtaining its object, namely, refusal to work, or, in other words, the strike. It was perfectly clear that the men of the old regime in Germany, as also in Russia, would endeavour to crush any attempt to overthrow them by a resort to arms. But that a considerable section of the proletariat, when once it came to power, should again have, recourse to slaughter, revenge and rage, as did indeed happen at the end of the eighteenth century, was expected by no one. This set the whole development upside down.
In opposition to the views of Engels, who was the author of the book The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Knowledge, which voiced the belief that there would be a continuous diminution of barbarity and cruelty in future proletarian revolutions, another view has lately been discussed in a book entitled The Development of Socialism from Knowledge to Action, which appears in the preface to a book entitled The Programme of the Communists, by N. Bukharin (Zurich 1918). There it is written:-
The more capitalism develops in, any country, the more reckless will be its defensive struggle, and so the more murderous will be the proletarian revolution, the more cruel the measures by means of which the victorious working-class will tread under foot the defeated capitalists. (p.19)
This is the very contrary to what Marx and Engel’s had expected It is all the more wrong, since it erects into a general law for the whole of social development those Bolshevik practices that have prevailed for the last eighteen months. It is wrong, because it declares these practices to be the outcome of the recklessness and the brutality of the capitalists’ defensive war. Of all this brutality there was no sign in November, 1917, in Petersburg and in Moscow; and still less recently in Budapest. But that the proletarian revolution has become more murderous in the extreme is perfectly true. The reason for this state of affairs, I, in my “senile obstinacy” or my “senile stupidity” (Bukharin, p.22), attribute, in any case, to other factors than capitalist barbarity, which was never less evident in the countries involved in the world-war than in Germany at the beginning of the last revolution.
The real cause of the change, in the process of the hitherto recorded development towards humanisation, into a development towards brutality is attributable to the world-war; but even earlier there were other factors that were inimical to the general tendency of the humanising influence. The most important of these was brought to light by the very French Revolution itself. It was universal military service, which the revolutionary regime found necessary, in order, by means of a superiority of troops and the continual filling up of vacant appointments, to cope with the professional armies of the united monarchs arraigned against them. There was only one of these monarchic States, which introduced this system and indeed preserved and developed it at a time when France had already again discarded it. This was Prussia, the smallest and most recent of the great Powers of Europe, with the most unfavourable frontiers; whose very existence demanded an army, which, in relation to the population, was far greater than that in any other land. Apart from this fact, the old Prussia, from perfectly natural causes, was regarded as a stepchild and the poorest among the great States. If, therefore, it really wished to assert itself, all other considerations had to go in favour of the army. As a consequence, ever since the day of its ascendancy, when it ranked as one of the great Powers, it has been a militarist State par excellence. In his book on Germany (My Four Years in Germany, London 1917, p.447) Gerard, the American Ambassador, makes several remarks, which show up Prussia’s military calling in a drastic light.
Thanks to universal military service and the upholding of militarism in general, Prussia arrived at the height of its power in the West, between 1866 and 1870. As a result, universal service was forced upon the remaining States of the European Continent, and at about the same time the railway system became a military the best a decisive factor in the conduct of war. All States endeavoured to develop this system to of their powers, which brought about the necessity for a continuous increase of armed force – in other words, a more and more rigid application of universal service. Hence we finally arrived at the glorious result, that the whole of the male population, which was not crippled or physically unfit, was pressed into war service! But war service means the becoming accustomed to the shedding of human blood, and to competition in such shedding. It signifies the deadening of human feelings, of culture, and the cultivation of brutality. In the eighteenth century, when there were only small professional armies (militia), the great mass of the people was preserved from such influences on their morals; but, as a consequence of universal military service, the people in the course of the nineteenth century, became more and more brutalised, and first and foremast in Prussia.
The humanising tendencies of the nineteenth century were thereby not wholly without effect; but they were most adversely affected. These humanizing tendencies became most pronounced in the case of the intellectual elements. These remained longest exempt from military service, even at the time when, instead of voluntary enlistment, forced recruiting was resorted to. But, under the conscription system, it was in the first place only the peasants, artisans, and the labouring clauses, who were affected; the middle class and the intellectuals were spared. Universal service, however, could ultimately make no exception in their case. On the contrary, officers to command reserves were required. But before, as after, the educated man occupied a special position in regard to military service. It was not a position that excluded him from the army, but one in which he, within the army itself, as a. volunteer for one year and as a reserve officer, had certain privileges. As a result, the educated classes had the influences of military force on their thoughts and feelings, and indeed to a still higher degree than was the case with the other classes. For it put them in a privileged position and created in them already a certain taste for army life. Moreover, the system of professional officers enhanced the attraction of the army. Those who had made military service their life vocation, for whom it was no mere temporary form of activity, and who in all war measures had to take the initiative, and make their regiment excel in energy and smartness, developed the characteristic traits of militarism; in a still higher degree than the ordinary men, who had to serve for only a short period, and even then were compelled to do so.
As a result, the educated classes were more strongly influenced by militarism than even the rest of the population. Furthermore, professional occupation brings with it a tendency to develop every idea and conception in a more thorough and radical way – which after all is quite compatible with very reactionary modes of thought – than is the case with men, who, through practical experience, know the obstacles that occur in daily life. Those of the educated classes who wished to became reserve officers, and took as their example the professional officers, easily adapted themselves to militarism, and became the very pioneers of roughness and violence which, the outcome of universal service, soon spread to the whole of the people. Even in this respect Prussia was to the forefront of the other States; since it first introduced the system of one year volunteers and reserve officers, and raised the reserve officer, more than any other State had done, to a privileged and much-coveted position. Yet, in spite of universal military service, the humanising tendencies in the proletariat were stronger, as a result of its class position, than the brutalising influence of militarism. In the case of the educated classes, especially in Prussia, a strong check was put on these tendencies, which contributed not a little to the bitterness of class opposition and class struggle.
What is here said of the educated applies especially to the capitalists, whose humane instincts, from the outset, find stronger opposing forces to overcome, as a result of their position. When, therefore, the war broke out and dragged in its train for four years practically the whole of the healthy male population, the coarsening tendencies of militarism sank to the very depths of brutality, and lack of human feeling and sentiment. Even the proletariat could no longer escape from its influence. It was in a very high degree infected by militarism, and when it returned home again, was in every way brutalised. Habituated to war, the man who had come back from the front was only too often in a state of mind and feeling that made him ready, even in peace times and among his own people, to enforce his claims and interests by deeds of violence and bloodshed. That became, as it were, an element of the civil war; it. also contributed further to make the masses mere savages. Nevertheless, many of the more mature, as soon as they were removed from the influences of war, fell easily enough into the ways of thinking and feeling they had acquired in times of peace. It is much worse, however, in the case of youths; for they, without any teachers or guides, have been powerless to withstand the brutalising influences that prevailed during the four years of the war; and hence have received impressions, which they can never eradicate completely, so long as they lived.
Besides all this, there is a very profound change at work in the very conditions of the proletariat. The war has affected most seriously the petty bourgeoisie, and has claimed many of their ranks, and forced them into the proletariat. Moreover, these elements, who hitherto remained aloof from, all proletarian class struggles, have not come into contact with the discipline and the capacity for organisation, which the proletariat had acquired at the time when the class struggle was under the leadership of the Socialist Parties. These took the trouble to enlighten and organise the masses; and even within the proletariat, as it has been hitherto constituted, there have been very profound changes. As was the case with all workers, the reduction in number of the skilled workers in time of war, through death, or through injury and had became much greater than in times of peace.
At the same time, hardly any provision was made for the rising generation. There was no time or strength to educate the young, and there was also lacking the very need to undertake such activity. Instead of the varied industries that existed in times of peace, there rose up the much more monotonous war industry, which offered only small scope for skilled labour; and each labourer had only to learn the use of a little machinery, which most unskilled apprentices could manipulate just as well. In consequence, the number of skilled labourers, who have contributed so enormously to Germany’s industrial development, became very greatly reduced during the war; and in their stead there has sprung up unskilled labour, the numbers of which have rapidly increased. The skilled labourers were the best organised and best educated, and were the clearest thinking of all the labour classes. The unskilled were unorganised, ignorant and indifferent. Their indifference certainly disappeared during the war. For this gigantic event, with its fearful consequences, roused everyone, even the most remote elements of the people, and brought them to the most feverish excitement. At the same, tune, however, the number of skilled workers, brought up on Socialist doctrine, diminished, as against the numbers of those who, in every respect, were ignorant and. undisciplined; and also as against the increase of the petty bourgeoisie, which had been forced into the proletariat. As a result, the minority with superior education and skill, who had hitherto led the proletariat, gradually lost its power of leading, and in its stead there arose the blind passion of ignorance. This became all the more easy, because the war brought in its train the most profound economic chaos, a huge amount of unemployment, an enormous increase in high prices, and lack of the necessaries of life. So the desperate masses demanded the most radical changes; not indeed in order to create a newer and higher form of society about which they, as a matter of fact, had not given a thought, but in order to escape immediately from their horrible misery. For the proletariat the change of its wretched situation is always an urgent matter. That is the chief reason why, since considerable economic and historical knowledge is a necessary requisite for the understanding of Marxism, Marx’s mode of thought has never found it easy to take root among the labouring classes. The masses do not instinctively prefer a doctrine which leads towards the road of development, but one which offers a formula or a plan, the carrying out of which will inevitable relieve them, in all circumstances, from the suffering they have. to endure. For a. proletarian it argues a certain amount of resignation on his part to acknowledge a doctrine, which certainly does not expect of him a state of mere passive waiting, but on the other hand spurs him on to an energetic continuation of the class struggle; yet. which nevertheless makes his ultimate emancipation from conditions dependent on a mode of development, which has first of all to be discovered and created. However difficult it was for the proletarian in the latter decades before the war, his position was such that he could, to a certain extent, live in such a way, that the. immediate transformation of satiety was for him not a question of life or death; at least not for the skilled labourer, who formed the nucleus of the class struggle and of the Socialist movement. Nowadays these workmen are ousted in all political and economic struggles by the unskilled, and the conditions for these latter are so desperate that they cannot afford to wait. Why indeed should they wait, when the conclusion of the war has finally put the political power into their hands?
The war has not only brought the most solid elements of the working-classes into the forefront of the class struggle; but it has also, as the result of the collapse of the armies, especially in those parts of Europe which are economically most solid, created the proletarian class in the various towns, by the side of which illiterate peasants, such as are to be found in Russia, have not been able to acquire any real independent political power. No class ever voluntarily renounces the power that it has won for itself, whatever be the circumstances that have brought it to the fore. It would he folly to demand of the Russian and Hungarian proletariats such renunciation, an account of the backward state of their countries. But a Socialist Party led by a truly Marxist spirit would adapt the present problems confronting the victorious proletariat to the material and psychical conditions to be found ready to hand; and would not endeavour, without further reflection, to introduce an immediate and complete socialisation in a land of undeveloped capitalist production like Russia.
Certainly it is questionable whether such a party could ever lead the masses. To the practical politicians it seems more important to rule at the moment, than to run the danger of an economic failure, with a view to being ultimately in the right. The practical politician does not like being in a position of inviting unpopularity at the present moment, because the inevitable collapse of a policy, which exceeds the bounds of possibility, has been made clear. He prefers to avoid the collapse, and to preserve his ideal from being compromised. The old antagonism between practical politics and theoretical politics, between Lassalle and Marx, rose again after the revolution in Russia in 1917. Marx declared in his letter to Kugelmann, of the 23rd February, 1865 (published by me in the Socialist, 1st May, 1918), that the German working men, as a result of the reaction of 1849-1859, had became too much hampered in their development not to “become jubilant when a deliverer, in the form of a mob orator like Lassalle, comes and promises to help them at one move to enter the promised land.” Such “moves” and such “deliverers” were not to Marx’s taste. But, as at the time of Lassalle, the time of the Second Russian Revolution, if for quite other reasons, proved to be very unfavourable to “Marxist” doctrines. Those among the labouring classes in Russia, who had been trained on Marxist lines, were dead or swept away the backward masses, who had suddenly awakened to life. It was pre-Marxist ways of thought that gained the upper hand, ways such as were represented by Blanqui, Weitling or Bakunin. These were the conditions under which the Revolution, first of all in Russia and then in the neighbouring countries, progressed. No wonder therefore, that it awoke afresh only primitive ways of thought ; and also allowed brutal and murderous forms of political and social war to come to light, forms which one had been led to believe had been overcome by the intellectual and. moral rise of the proletariat.
Last updated on 19.1.2004