Karl Kautsky

Terrorism and Communism

Chapter V
The Traditions of the Reign of Terror

The downfall of Robespierre signified the worst possible collapse. It was a moral collapse brought about by the fact that the proletarians and the petty bourgeois of Paris forsook the party that represented them and refused any longer to fight for them. Indeed, they breathed freely as if they had been relieved of some heavy burden, when finally an end was put to the fearful massacres.

But this deplorable end was soon forgotten. What remained deeply rooted in the memories of the revolutionary proletarians and small bourgeois – not only in Paris – was the remembrance of the great and splendid time, when they, through their insurrections, dominated the Convention, and through the Convention, France itself, the mightiest State of that period, which was in a position to defy the whole of Europe, and even subjugate it, temporarily at least.

The more wretched the times for the proletariat, the small bourgeoisie, and the revolutionaries generally under the sabre-government of Napoleon, especially after his overthrow under the regime of the “Junkers” and the financial magnates, the more did the revolutionaries cherish those great traditions.

There are very few men who study history for any scientific purpose and in a scientific spirit, that is to say, with the intention of trying to discover the causal nexus in the development of humanity, in order to bring it into line irrefutably with the whole body of recognised interconnections in this development; or in other words, in order to make their conceptions of the world and things more profound, and to arrive at clearer knowledge and stronger foundations.

The starting point of every science has always some very practical aim, and is not the result of an impulse towards philosophical knowledge. Proof of this is to be found in so abstract a science as geometry through its very name alone; which implies nothing other than the art of measuring the earth.

In like manner the starting point of history was a purely practical one, namely, the laudation of one’s forefathers, in order to stimulate the rising generation to emulate them. Since it was not primarily a question of knowledge, but rather of political and ethical consequences, it was not regarded as necessary to stick absolutely to the truth. Exaggeration was readily indulged in, so that the effect might be enhanced; nor did they shrink from deliberate invention. Historical falsification is as old as the writing of history itself.

As is generally known, this method of writing and explaining history has continued up to the present day. It is regarded as being the manifestation of great patriotic feeling – much more than any praiseworthy accomplishment.

The writing of history has a further practical abject. It was a means of establishing the claims of separate states, or of separate localities, clans or families, within a State, through the customs, agreements or treaties of bygone days. This brand of historical exposition gave the falsifier rich material. Thus a great part of the wealth and power of the Catholic Church, as well as of the Pope and individual bishops, orders and monasteries, was established on falsified documents.

The fabrication of false documents has gone out of fashion since reading and writing have ceased to be confined to a few chosen circles. That, however, “Historical Science” always understands very well how to produce, at pleasure, established proofs in support of every historical claim to any legal right, has been abundantly shown to us by the skill with which every belligerent land in the last few years has produced “scientific” proofs of its historical rights, corresponding to its appetites and desires.

Nevertheless the most important advantage to be derived from history lies neither in the inspiration and enthusiasm to be derived from contemplating the exploits and brave deeds of one’s forefathers, nor in the establishing of claims to certain rights; but rather in the increasing of the power that belongs to him who wishes to derive benefit from experiences made in the past.

This increase of power may take a double form. On the one hand the individual can augment his intellectual power, by learning something from history. That is to say, that he examines the successes and failures of his predecessors, and attempts to discover what he himself might have done, or left undone, in given circumstances. Especially in military matters the knowledge derived from history has had enormous practical results. There has hardly ever been an army leader who has not wandered through the history of war, and learnt from his predecessors.

More difficult is the knowledge of political matters to be derived from a study of history. Far greater masses come under consideration in the question of politics than in the case of war, especially in the wars of earlier times And these masses are not will-less instruments in the hand of an all-powerful leader, but very individual and to be tackled with difficulty. And finally, the relations with which a politician has to deal are much more varied and changeable than in the case of military matters. Even in military matters, which embrace relations of simpler order, more easy to survey than politics, it would be fatal if learning from history should lead to an unintelligent imitation of the past, rather than to a purposeful application of the general rules and principles, derived from the study of history, to the particular case. In politics the differences in the social conditions and situations of the individual countries and times are much greater, and therefore much less easy to recognise. Hence an imitation, according to pattern, of the events of the past, applied directly to situations which merely bear superficial resemblance to events of the past, can often do more harm than good and cloud the vision, rather than brightening it, in its quest for the knowledge of the true state of affairs and of the particular needs of the moment.

What happens, then, in politics is that men have little understood how really to learn. But most politicians, even when they do busy themselves with historical knowledge, are far less concerned about “learning” than about something quite different. And so we came to the consideration of the second means of increasing one’s power and strength by a study of history.

Every one of the present-day classes and parties finds its analogy in the past; for in bygone days, as in our own, there were struggles between exploiters and the exploited, between those with possessions and those without, between aristocrats and democrats, between monarch and republicans. These classes and parties of the past were certainly governed by conditions very different from those prevailing at the present day; they often signified something quite different from the corresponding phenomena of a later period. But in politics the events of to-day are measured and compared with similar events of the past, with their successes and failures. For the sake of propaganda in a particular direction, it always added to one’s power if one could refer to some event in the past, which had met with success. And it was no less addition to the strength of one’s propaganda, if one could show the other side, and point out where a contrary action has led to the shipwreck of one’s predecessor.

This occasioned a very keen interest in the study of history, but by no means a real interest in historical truth. Here also we find instances of the falsification of history. The writers of each party naturally seek to put their protagonists in a bright light, and their opponents in as dark a light as possible. Amid the practical needs which give rise to the falsification of history, those only are free from tendency to falsification who are animated by a desire really to learn. This desire leads to the attempt at discovering the failures, as well as the successes, of one’s predecessors, and subjecting them and their actions to rigorous criticism. At this point we find the transition to the purely scientific impulse towards exact truth, towards the examination of history out of the pure desire to satisfy the demands of causality.

All other practical needs that lead to the writing of history develop the tendency to degrade the scientific, until it merely becomes a fabrication of legends. Fortunately, nowadays, the critic of the other side can always expose such trickery. This sort of business can no longer proceed in such a simple way as at the time when the gospels were collated, except under the regime of a state of siege, or under the censor. But even at the highest grade of popular education and unrestricted liberty of the Press, there is no lack of one-sided expositions of history.

Naturally it must not be supposed that there is always a conscious attempt to lead the reader astray. In most cases it is the historical writer who is led astray through his own party fanaticism and party narrowness, which generally prevent him from seeing things as they really are.

This is all the more possible, since the sources which we draw upon to supply historical information are often themselves the result of party struggle, and since social relations are always so extraordinarily complex that the most detached enquirer often experiences difficulty in finding his way about, and must often ask himself the question, “What is truth?”

Lissagaray rightly says, in the preface to his History of the Commune: “The man who gives the people false stories of the revolution and deceives them, whether intentionally or not, by ‘historical fantasies,’ lays himself open to punishment, as much as a geographer who should sketch false charts for seafarers.”

And yet I know comrades in my party, thoroughly honest and honourable comrades, who regard it as a sacred duty towards the revolution to mislead the people, by giving them false “historical fantasies” about Bolshevism.

On the other hand, how difficult it is even for the most conscientious historian, while the storm is at its height, to indicate on a map all the dangerous rocks which have been passed on the voyage! Revolutions, which let loose men’s passions, and in which men fight for life or death, naturally suffer more than all other historical events from party exposition and ideas. And so true is this, that in the great French Revolution it was the Paris Commune; with its reign of terror, representing the most powerful driving-force and the most passionate manifestation of that Revolution, which was most violently combated. It was to this institution that the counter-revolutionaries pointed whenever they wanted to characterise and denounce the Revolution. But to defend it was regarded by the revolutionaries as a duty. They were not content with regarding the regime of terror as a particular form assumed by the revolution at that time, a form which belonged to the past, not to be revived in the future. They were not content with explaining the special conditions that were responsible for the formation of that regime. On the contrary, they felt themselves constrained to glorify instead of condemning that institution, regarding the “Terror” as a horrible but necessary means for the liberation of the enslaved classes.

Even Marx himself in 1848 still reckoned on the victorious power of revolutionary Terrorism, in spite of the fact that he had at that time already criticised the traditions of 1793.

In the Neue Rheinische Zeitung he repeatedly spoke in favour of terrorism. In one number (January 13th, 1849) he wrote as follows concerning the rising of the Hungarians, whose revolutionary importance he overestimated: “For the first time in the revolutionary movement of 1848, for the first time since 1793, a nation surrounded by counter-revolutionary powers, has dared to oppose revolutionary passion to cowardly anti-revolutionary rage, and to meet white terror with red terror. For the first time for many years we find a truly revolutionary character, a man who dares to take up the gauntlet in the shape of a desperate struggle in the name of his own people, and who for that nation is Danton and Carrot in one. That man is Ludwig Kossuth.”

Before that, in a number of the same journal, November 7th, 1848, Marx wrote in connection with the affair in Vienna: “In Paris the destructive counter-stroke of the June Revolution will be overcome. With the victory of the ‘Red Republic’ in Paris, the armies from the interior will spread up to and beyond the frontiers, and the actual power of the contesting parties will become evident. Then we shall think of June and of October (the overthrow of Vienna by Windischgratz), and we too shall shout: ‘Vae victis!’ The futile massacres since the days of June and October, the exhaustive sacrifices since February and March, the cannibalism of the counter-revolution, will convince the people that there exists only one means of shortening, simplifying and centralising the death agony of the old order of society and the bloody birth-throes of the new – only one means, and that is Revolutionary Terrorism.”

This was not put to a practical test. But we find among the revolutionaries themselves a growing contradiction within. If a study of the past drives them to uphold terrorism, their attitude is in contradiction to their growing humanitarian instinct, arising, as we shall see later, from present-day conditions, and to their repugnance to commit acts of human torture, and even to take human life. And this humanitarianism in practice carries more weight than the obsolete terrorist creed of the history books.

Concerning the revolutionaries of July, 1830, Börne wrote in the sixth of his Paris letters: “Quickly they conquered, still quicker have they forgiven. How gentle has been the retaliation of the people who have suffered so much injury; how soon they have forgotten all! Only in open fight on the battlefield have they ever wounded the opponent. Defenceless prisoners were never murdered, fugitives never chased, those in hiding never searched for, the suspects never molested. Such is the behaviour of a people!”

In February, 1848, the Paris revolutionaries behaved as magnanimously as they had done in 1830. Even in the terrible June battle of the same year, the fighting workers exhibited the most noble heroism, and the toughest powers of endurance, but no signs of thirst for blood. This was left for their victors to develop in the most shocking manner. Not only the soldiers, whose rage was fired by invented accounts of atrocities committed by the insurgents; even the intellectuals took part in this campaign of revenge. Doctors refused to bind the wounds of wounded revolutionaries.

Marx said in this connection, in his famous article on the June battle in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung:

Science no longer exists for the plebeian, who was guilty of shameless and nameless crimes when fighting for his existence in the trenches, instead of for Louis Philippe or Marrast.

It was indignation over such barbarities that urged Marx to write the above-cited confessions to terrorism.

The extreme bitterness, engendered by the June battle of 1848, had further consequences among the workers of Paris, when they in 1871 overcame the political power in the Second Commune. Not a few of them had themselves taken part in the struggle of June, 1848. It might have been expected that the days of vengeance would now come, the day of terror, prophesied by Marx.

But he himself declares in his work on the Commune (The Civil War in France, 1871): “From March 18th until the entry of the Versailles troops into Paris, the proletarian revolution remained innocent of all acts of violence, in which revolutionaries and especially counter-revolutionaries of the ‘higher classes’ are wont to revel.” (Third edition, p.88.)

Here we find a definite repudiation of terrorism, which is regarded as a feature of the revolution of the “higher classes”, as compared with the proletarian revolution.

Not long ago my attitude towards Bolshevism was described as infidelity towards Marx, whose revolutionary fire would certainly have led him to Bolshevism. As proof of this, one of Marx’s declarations on the terrorism of 1848 was quoted.

We now see that the infidelity towards Marx, of which I was guilty, had been accomplished by himself as early as 1871. Between his first and second declaration, two decades of the most strenuous and profound mental activity had intervened, the result of which was Capital.

Whoever takes refuge in Marx on the question of terrorism has no right to adhere to his views of 1848 and ignore those of 1871. Like Marx, Engels also showed little enthusiasm in 1870 for terrorism. On September 4th, 1870, he wrote to Marx: “We understand by the ‘reign of terror’ the reign of those who breathe and inspire frightfulness; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who themselves are frightened. La terreur – this embodies for the most part futile atrocities committed by people who themselves have fear, and have need of reassurance. I am convinced that the blame for the reign of terror of 1793 is almost entirely to be laid at the doors of the over-anxious small bourgeois, who masqueraded as patriots, and of the mob, who made of terrorism a regular business.” Correspondence between Marx and Engels, IV., 379, 380.)

Marx was perfectly right when he, with obvious satisfaction, pointed cut that the Second Paris Commune remained free from all acts of violence, which were so strong a feature of the First. What did happen of a violent nature during the time of its existence in Paris was not to be laid to its account. Even so, it must not be supposed that the idea of terrorism played no part at all in the Second Commune, or that it was repudiated by all the members of that institution. That was by no means the case.

Let us now discuss this more closely, and at the same time draw a parallel between the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Soviet Republic. For this latter often points to the Commune of 1871 as its prototype, and as embodying its justification. And Frederick Engels, in his preface to the third edition of Marx’s Civil War in France, has declared that the Paris Commune represented the dictatorship of the proletariat. Therefore it will repay us to examine this dictatorship more closely and see what it looked like.


Last updated on 19.1.2004