Legality, Commonweal, 9th April 1887, pp.113-114.
Republished in The Ethics of Socialism, pp.69-74.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
THE respect for law as law is one of the most marked characteristics of the middle-class mind. One is particularly struck with the strength of this superstition on occasions like attempts on the life of the Czar. There are probably few middle-class Englishmen who would in so many words condone the atrocities and murders of the Russian Government. And yet there are probably few who would refuse the word crime to any act of self-defence initiated by its victims. Here is a case in which you have on the one side what every Englishman (bourgeois though he may be) that knows anything about the matter would in his heart admit to be an organisation of brigands, a mass of corrupt officials, seizing and secretly torturing or murdering, on the slightest pretext, any person they imagine to be obnoxious to them, tearing men away from their families at a moment’s notice to serve in an army, not of defence, but of oppression – in short, establishing a reign of terror in all the towns of a vast territory. On the other, you have their victims, the population, who are endeavouring to defend themselves against this organised brigandage. There is a difference, however, a vast line of cleavage, between the two. The one operates under the name of “established government,” and hence, all its transactions, however criminal in themselves, are protected by the trade-mark “legality.” The other does not operate under the name of established government, and hence all its hostile transactions, however justifiable in themselves, are contraband as not bearing the trade-mark “legality.” For this reason the average bourgeois hesitates or refuses to denounce the one as criminal or to uphold the other as righteous. In this course he is insincere. It may be unhesitatingly affirmed that any sane man who says he believes it wrong to kill the Czar, lies. No man’s conscience is so grotesquely twisted as to make him think thus. For it must be remembered this is not a case of Socialism v. anti-Socialism, but of the most elementary form of the rights of liberty and life.
The Czar and his bureaucracy render life, even from the ordinary point of view, all but impossible in Russia for any one outside their own body. The man, therefore, who hesitates to justify to the full. any action that may be taken in self-defence is plainly dishonest. But his dishonesty has its explanation; “this defect defective comes by cause.” And the explanation of his dishonesty is to be found in his unwillingness to violate that “blessed word,” “legality.” But whence the magic of this word? Thereby hangs the tale, of personal property, crime, and contract – in short, the tale of civilisation. Law, nowadays, is not usually identified as m Russia with direct personal violence. On the contrary, one of the great planks of the bourgeois in his struggle with Feudalism has ever been security of person and property from overt violence. To this was subsequently added liberty of conscience and the free expression of opinion. Now these principles are (with one partial exception) at least nominally upheld by bourgeois law throughout Western Europe. So that speaking generally the bourgeois can appeal to legality as embodying his notion of justice and the rights of liberty and property – the two things being in the main identical. In Russia, on the contrary, they are for the most part altogether opposed; the pet political nostrum of the middle-classes, constitutionalism, is unknown, all opinion is crushed out. Here, then, our worthy bourgeois finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. He cannot consistently with one side of his principles champion or even condone the Russian Government. On the other hand he cannot without endangering the basis of his social order openly pronounce in favour of conspirators against any established government, however bad even from his own point of view. To do so would be to take the side of lawlessness against law. And is not the sacredness of private property enshrined historically in the conception of “law” and “government”? This is awkward, very. The issue, however, is not long doubtful. Class-interest triumphs. With more or less of hesitation, and in violation of his conscience, he denounces as “assassins” the executioners of a murderous Czar, and as criminals the manufacturers of the munitions of war designed for self-defence against the most infamous band of oppressors the world has ever seen.
For the reason above given, the Socialist alone dare speak the naked truth in the matter of Nihilism v. Czarism. He has no obligation to respect “established government” or legality as such, inasmuch as the right of property it enshrines has for him no eternal sacredness. For him it is indifferent whether social and political ends are realised by lawful or lawless means. He has not the slightest objection (if he is sensible) to obtaining what he desires by legal and constitutional methods, but neither has he any moral objection to employing or seeing employed other methods where these fail. Not discerning any sacredness in the fact of legality, not recognising any patent right to criminality as vested in constitutional authorities or governments, he hesitates not to brand their ringleaders as miscreants when crimes are committed in their name. Just as little does he hesitate to recognise as agents of judicial retribution those who, always at the risk, and in some cases the certain sacrifice of their own lives, take upon themselves the social function of judge or executioner. The fact of wearing a particular garb, being paid a high salary, and propounding unctuous platitudes from a “bench,” is not for him the sine qua non of an administrator of justice. The test of criminal conduct or of judicial functions with him lies in the actions themselves and in the circumstances giving rise to them, and not in the social status or character of those performing them.
The Socialist alone, then, can unreservedly speak what others only dare to think-can express his conviction plainly where others casuistically prevaricate. Even the Radical, inasmuch as he still clings in theory at least to the absolute sacredness of private property, can hardly, if he be consistent, – help squirming at the notion of illicit justice. He may have given up many things, but at this he draws back. There is a story of an ancient Tartar prince who one day issued the order to his retinue to draw their bows at every object at which he let fly an arrow, on pain of instant decapitation. He first of all shot one of the royal game. Some of his men hesitating, lost their heads. He thereupon shot one of his best horses. Some of his train held back. Their heads fell immediately. After that he discharged an arrow into the body of his favourite wife. (N.B. It must not be supposed that this wife had done anything particular; but as she happened to be there the prince used her as an illustration, which, though it may seem to argue an inadequate sense of the respect due to woman, does not imply any malice on his part.) Here, again, some of his men hesitated, with the same result as in the former case. Striking at higher game, he then proceeded to pierce with his arrow the finest steed of the reigning khan. On this occasion all the bows were drawn and all the arrows flew. Now for the first time the prince saw that he had got his men well in hand, and that henceforth they were ready for the final coup. So the next day, riding out with the khan to the chase, he “drew” upon him. The unhappy monarch, to employ the phraseology of historians, fell pierced with a thousand wounds, and the prince was that day installed in his place. The moral of this story is evident. Before the working classes are prepared for the Revolution they must place the demands of the Revolution before everything else. The Radical, until he is prepared to transfix that leading steed in the stable of class society – bourgeois legality – is not ready to immolate that society itself and install a more virile one in its room.
But, says the bourgeois, to come back to the case in point, if you admit what is commonly called political assassination, where are you to draw the line? We will see. What is commonly but often incorrectly called political assassination may or may not be morally justifiable. In the opinion of the present writer, and that of most Socialists, it is morally justifiable when the right of discussion of social or political questions, either by speech or writing, is suppressed as against those who suppress it, and only then. The reason is, that from the point of view of progress such suppression being the strangulation by brute-force of social life itself, the removal of its author or authors is a mere act of self-defence. So long as free discussion exists, there can be no excuse for the use of terrorist methods, which are in this case at once a crime and a blunder. For in these circumstances, when the people are free to organise for this end, if they do not overthrow, either by constitutional or other means, a system whose rottenness has been exhibited to them on platform and in press, it is clear as the noonday that conditions are not as yet ripe for such a change. When this is so, no amount of terrorism will avail aught. Terrorism is only effective as the result of a strong but suppressed popular movement; never as the cause. “Rover’s cross this morning and won’t play,” says the little girl to her brother; “What shall we do?” “Wag his tail for him,” replies the latter. The idea of the Anarchist to stimulate an unprepared proletariat to revolt by wagging the popular tail with dynamite is just as reasonable.
Applying these remarks, we may observe in conclusion that in Russia, where not only is opinion suppressed, but no man’s life or liberty is safe from the autocrat or his myrmidons, terrorism must be pronounced unquestionably both morally justifiable and expedient; in Germany, where discussion is suppressed, though morally justifiable, for various reasons inexpedient; in this country at the present time, and wherever discussion is free, neither morally justifiable nor expedient.
Last updated on 14.1.2006