Written: January 21st, 1931.
Source: Karl Radek, Portraits and Pamphlets, with an introduction by A.J. Cummings and notes by Alec Brown, New York: R.M. McBride, 1935.
Transcribed: Harrison Fluss for marxists.org, February 2008.
To-day what remains of the so-called civilized world is celebrating the sixty-fifth birthday of the great French writer Romain Rolland. The greatest of French writers will not receive any greetings to-day from the French Government. Neither M. Tardieu, open expression of the French bourgeoisie’s greed for expansion, nor M. Briand who wraps the greed up in talk of peace, will congratulate him. The bourgeois press will be silent about it too, because it cannot honour a man who does not lend his voice to the imperialist wolf-pack, but instead raises it to protest against the constant hue and cry against the land of the Soviets. But those in the ranks of the so-called advanced intelligentsia who still clothe themselves in a mantle of humanitarianism will drown him in flattery though of course they will not follow him a single inch.
But the revolutionary workers of the whole world, and in the first place the proletariat of the USSR send him sincere and hearty greetings, accompanying them not by words of flattery, but of words of honest proletarian truth.
Romain Rolland is worthy of such truth, for it was he himself who in a letter to his Russian readers said that the main connecting-link between him and Russian literature “was above all an ardent passion for truth, a passion not abstract but physical, a passion of mind comparable to one’s passion for the woman he loves.” The truth about Romain Rolland is that he has always been a writer expressing the best ideas preserved from the golden age of the bourgeoisie. He has always had a great love for the human intellect, for its attempts to master the world, a love for the labour which puts great ideas into life, a love of fight, a longing to get beyond the narrow confines of one nation and unite all humanity on the basis of its forward striving.
It is not surprising that Romain Rolland, inspired by such ideals, should take up a negative attitude towards the era of capitalism, which started from humanism, passed to nationalism, and now has reached the stage of cannibalism. With enthusiasm he subscribed to the Tolstoyan critique of bourgeois civilization, although as a son of France, he could neither share Tolstoy’s asceticism nor deny the importance of the modern application of science and art. From Tolstoy he took the doctrine of non-resistance to evil, as the best way of resisting evil, and when the whole world was plunged into the blood bath, he left the stifling atmosphere of savage nationalism of France to wait in Switzerland, till the storm was over, occupying himself meanwhile in doing all he could for the prisoners of war of the various countries.
He knew quite well that his flight from the bloody struggle was a capitulation. But being quite detached from the working class and with no faith in its strength, and moreover being prevented from seeing the least sign of that strength by the shameful shroud with which international Social-Democracy kept the proletariat covered, as if it were a corpse, he could not find the way out. The October Revolution revived his hopes. He was all attention. The poisonous stream of lies with which the bourgeoisie sought to kill all interest in the October Revolution among the European intelligentsia made no impression whatsoever upon him, for he knew too well the system of organized deceit which goes by the name of “free and untrammeled press,” and; freedom of speech’ in capitalist countries. From the accounts of eye-witnesses returning from the U.S.S.R. he began to realize that in that country whose literature he liked so much a new world was coming to birth.
But Romain Rolland still remained an intellectual, i.e., he belonged to the strata of society whose ‘advanced’ representatives even are like the poor Jew from Zhitomir, in Babel’s story Gedalia, who argued this way ‘Dis Pole shoot, my sir, because he is counter-revolution. You shoot because you are revolution. Revolution, oh, dat is satisfaction, and satisfaction don’t like to have orphans in de home. A good man do good deeds. Revolution dat is good deeds by good peoples. But good peoples do not kill. Oh, no. Well, dat means de revolution is being made by wicked peoples. Who den will tell Gedalia which is de revolution and which is de counter-revolution?...And here all we leatned people, we fall on our faces and cry, “Woe to us! Where is dis dear revolution we want?"’
Like this poor forgotten Jew from Zhitomir, Romain Rolland, a great writer of a great civilization, wanted an ‘international of good people,’ and wished to see ‘every person registered and put on first category rations.’ He hailed the revolution for its magnificent struggle, for its attempt to build a new life, but he criticized its bloodshed, criticized it because during the struggle it did not allow freedom of speech to everyone, irrespective of what they wanted to use that great weapon for. Yet he did understand the absurdity of such a view. In January, 1923, he wrote to Balmont and Bunin like this ‘In Russia I see a nation which at the cost of unspeakable suffering is endeavoring to bring into life a new order. This new order is all smeared with blood like a human child just drawn from its mother’s womb. In spite of the horror, in spite of the terrible mistakes and the crimes I go up to the new-born and take it in my hands; it is hope, the pitiful hope of the future of mankind.’
But having achieved such an understanding of historical truth, he was forced to confess that though the Saint-Justes and the Robespierres did found a new world, if he had lived at the epoch of the French Revolution, he would have been a Girondist.
The intelligentsia considers itself the salt of the earth. But nowhere else can one see the real nature of the petty middle class, oscillating between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie so clearly as in the works of those intellectual writers who think that they stand above all classes.
It needed the spectacle of the continuous preparations of the international bourgeoisie for a new imperialist war, it needed all the shamelessness with which pacifism prostituted itself to imperialism, to cause this great French writer who dreamed like that of a gentle and bloodless revolution to take a forward stride. Izvestia prints an article but Romain Rolland in which he not only denounces in the most definite manner the lie of democracy while capitalist domination last, not only denounces the Pan-Europe idea as a veiled preparation for war against the USSR, but declares that the USSR is the hope of mankind and that ‘if the USSR is threatened no matter who by, I shall take my stand with the USSR’ Furthermore he makes the following great statement of principle: ‘In those days when I was slowly and painfully freeing myself from the illusions that fettered my mind (the lies of official historians, the lies about national and social conditions, the lie of traditions of ‘own countries’) and with difficulty and fearfully beginning to understand that answer which has liberated one part of mankind, the answer that other peoples should have given their governments, I did not dare say exactly what I thought. I do so now. It is Lenin’s answer of 1917, ‘Revolt of the European armies against the leaders of war, and fraternization on the battlefield.’
These words do great honour to the great French writer. It is not easy at sixty-five to scrap one’s fundamental attitude, and tear from one’s history the page on which is written non-resistance to evil, and further to recognize the rightness of Lenin’s call for the conversion of imperialist war into civil war. One needs to be a courageous man, a courageous thinker, to dare express this thought at the moment when imperialist France is preparing for a new war and when for this recognition of Lenin’s historic truthfulness Romain Rolland may to-day expect a machine-gun fire of lies and libel, and to-morrow a more brutal response.
Though we know that much still separates Romain Rolland from all the conclusions which logically follow recognition of Lenin’s slogan, we most warmly hail the step he has taken, because we see in it a political symptom of general historic significance. The masses of the lesser middle class did not understand the lesson of the world war. The world bourgeoisie, the ruling capitalist class, is just about to repeat the lesson. It is showing the lesser middle-class strata its real bestial face. Those who believed the 1914–1918 war (1914–1917 war for us) was a ‘ war to end war’ are due to wake up when they get the lesson the second time. The great French writer’s shift over foreshadows certain sections of the petty middle class turning against imperialism. We should like to see Roman Rolland gather courage and speak of the way he came to his conclusions, and moreover, speak not to small literary circles, but to the wide masses. They it is who are primarily interested in understanding whither the world is moving. It is they who have to pay with their life’s blood for imperialist policies. It is they who will make Lenin’s slogan reality. From the depth of our heart we desire the great writer to get into direct touch with the wide masses, from whom alone he can draw the strength which is essential when you give out slogans smelling of blood and iron. There is a Polish poem in which a workers says to the poet ‘I do the fighting for your dreams.’ The struggle against imperialism is a tremendous task and anyone who does not want to be content with dreaming about it all cannot afford to remain isolated.
He must not remain captive to even a fragment remaining of his old illusions – one of which is evident from Romain Rolland’s feelings for Gandhi, who fetters the strength of the Indian people. We know very well how difficult it will be at his age for Remain Rolland to go right to the end of the path he has chosen. We wish him the health and courage essential for the struggle.
Last updated on 18.10.2011