R. Page Arnot

Book Review

A Russian Philippic

Source: The Labour Monthly, October 1921, Vol. 1, No. 4.
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company, Ltd., London
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The Defence of Terrorism: (Terrorism and Communism): A Reply to Karl Kautsky, by L. Trotsky.
Preface by H.N. Brailsford
The Labour Publishing Company, Ltd., London
3s. 6d.

“TERRORISM AND COMMUNISM” was written sixteen months ago, in the midst of the Russo-Polish war. It is a strange spectacle to see a Minister for War, in the midst of a military crisis, engaged in a bookish controversy. But the explanation is not difficult. The whole driving force of the revolution depends on the belief of the Bolshevik theorists that they have been and are theoretically right and that the other Socialist theorists are wrong. Now of the other Socialist theorists by far the best known on the Continent is Karl Kautsky. For many years he was the High Priest of Marxism, and from the editorial chair of Die Neue Zeit spoke as ex cathedra. He was considered the orthodox exponent of Marxism, and many a working man learned his theoretic Socialism from his book on the Erfurt Programme. For the Bolsheviks it is, therefore, of great importance to show that at any rate the later utterances of Kautsky are an abandonment of the correct Marxist position. Another reason is furnished by Trotsky himself in his introduction, when he answers the question, “Is it still necessary to refute Kautsky theoretically?”

It may be said that the will of the working masses of the whole of the civilised world, directly influenced by the course of events, is at the present moment incomparably more revolutionary than their consciousness, which is still dominated by the prejudices of parliamentarism and compromise. The struggle for the dictatorship of the working class means, at the present moment, an embittered struggle with Kautskianism within the working class. . . . This book must serve the ends of an irreconcilable struggle against the cowardice, half-measures, and hypocrisy of Kautskianism in all countries.

The effect of this reply, however, goes far beyond any mere purpose of answering Kautsky. Indeed, in future Kautsky may be remembered only for his having provoked one of the most brilliant pieces of polemical writing in Socialist history. This book is written in the grand style: and, whichever way it is judged, will keep a place amongst the masterpieces of political argument.

The book answers Kautsky, it is true, but not in the somewhat plodding way, which makes such heavy reading, of Marx’s “Philosophy of Poverty” or Lenin’s “Proletarian Revolution.” Trotsky himself generates the necessary excitement by the bravura of his style for appreciating the intensity of the fight and for understanding the sword-play. Marx here and there turns from the analysis of the errors of Proudhon to a statement of the correct view-point: Trotsky turns from the sweep of his enunciation of the correct view-point to deal with the errors of Kautsky.

He deals first with “the balance of power,“ then turns to the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here, more than once, there suddenly emerges the scorn of the practical man who is also a theorist (the Philosopher-King) for the philosopher who has never had to apply his theories. For Kautsky, reliance on persuasion is the best weapon of the proletariat. Trotsky rallies him, asking brutally:—

Is it possible that Kautsky is leaning to the idea that the bourgeoisie can be held down with the help of the categorical imperative, which in his last writings plays the part of the Holy Ghost? . . . Every White Guard has long ago acquired the simple truth that it is easier to hang a Communist to a branch of a tree than to convert him with a book of Kautsky’s. These gentlemen have no superstitious fear, either of the principles of democracy or of the flames of hell.

He leaves it at that and the argument proceeds with the most brilliant chapter in the book, the chapter on “Democracy.” The chapter on “Terrorism” deals with all the revolutions of modern history up to and including the time of the Bolsheviks, up to the time of the revolutionary terrorism in Russia. The German savant’s comparison of the Paris Commune with Soviet Russia is traversed in a closely-reasoned chapter which shows a full knowledge of that episode in proletarian history. Thereafter in the chapters entitled “The Working Class and its Soviet Policy” and “Problems of the Organisation of Labour,” Trotsky achieves a miracle of compression and propaganda. Within its compass it is probably the best short statement and defeat of Soviet Russia that has yet been written. The temper and tone of it suggest a man turning aside from the highest and most exacting form of administrative work to write, not with a tired brain, but a mind at concert pitch. In short, Trotsky is in “top form.” At times he rises into a gaiety of invective, of which one example must be reproduced:—

In this connection, Kautsky asks: “Would Trotsky undertake to get on a locomotive and set it going, in the conviction that he would, during the journey, have time to learn and to arrange everything? One must preliminarily have acquired the qualities necessary to drive a locomotive before deciding to set it going. Similarly the proletariat ought beforehand to have acquired those necessary qualities which make it capable of administering industry, once it had taken it over.” This instructive comparison would have done honour to any villiage clergyman. None the less, it is stupid. With infinitely more foundation one could say: “Will Kautsky dare to mount a horse before he has learned to sit firmly in the saddle, and to guide the animal its steps?” We have foundations for believing that Kautsky would not make up his mind to such a dangerous purely Bolshevik experiment. On the other hand, we fear that, through not risking to mount the horse, Kautsky would have considerable difficulty in learning the secrets of riding on horseback. For the fundamental Bolshevik prejudice precisely this: that one learns to ride on horseback only when sitting on the horse.

This book, with its well-proportioned argument and its turns of phrase affords a literary pleasure not provided for in the usual Bolshevik literature. But to many readers there is another pleasure in the reading of it, in that it recalls a memory of the great controversies of the past. Surely the situation is unparalleled in the last two hundred years, that a new order of society, challenged to defend itself against the hostility of other nations, should also have to justify its existence on a European forum. For any parallel we have to go back to John Milton’s “Defensio pro Populo Anglicano.” The translation, as is obvious from the extracts I have quoted, is singularly well done, a thing for which we have reason to be grateful, particularly in translations from the Russian. The English is vivid and easy. There is, so far as I have noticed, only one mistake—in the passage where the Russian “Subbota” is given its normal translation “Saturday” instead of, as it should be in this particular place, “the Sabbath.” The printing is also good. But this praise for the auxiliaries of an author cannot be extended to the publishers, at least one respect. The change of the original title “Terrorism and Communism” to “The Defence of Terrorism” seems likely to be confusing to the bibliographer in the future, and positively misleading as to the contents of the book.

R. P. A.