Karl Radek

Dictatorship and Terrorism

Chapter II
The Terror of the Jacobins

As a learned man Herr Kautsky has a natural desire to follow up the history of terrorism since the Creation. But, thank God! these “luminous” details are spared us. We learn only that beasts of prey, and especially our remote ancestors, the apes, knew no dictatorship. They lived for the most part on a vegetable diet which they “now and then supplemented with smaller animals, caterpillars, worms, reptiles and even unfledged birds.” They never killed mammals. “No ape does the like,” declares Kautsky, to our great peace of mind and to the greater damnation of the Bolsheviks, who, as is well known, take the lead in the destruction of capitalist mammals. But still the Jacobins of 1793 were before them, and as the Jacobins were overtaken by their punishment he devotes more space in his investigation to them to our venerable ancestors, the apes.

His condemnation of the Jacobins, the direct ancestors of the Bolsheviks, can be comprised in the sentence in which he compresses the French Proudhonists’ opinion of them: “They (the Proudhonists) saw through the illusions which led to the Reign of Terror, which mislead the proletariat and brought them to a state of bloody savagery without talking them one step nearer to their freedom.” Kautsky supports this opinion in the following manner: Robespierre and his Government wished as a party to represent the interests of the proletariat and the petit-bourgeoisie. When then attained to power they and the proletarian masses behind them sought to use the machinery of the State “in order to realize that kingdom of equality which the thinkers of the bourgeoisie had promised them.”

“As a result the poor Parisians came into increasing antagonism to the peasants, the middlemen, the rich people – to all those elements, in short, which were most favored by private property in the means of production, whose abolition by the domination of small industry was impossible.

“As it was impossible for them to alter the process of production they attempted, by their machinery of power, to distribute the products of that process by means with which we in our own time have become all to familiar: high prices, compulsory loans which roughly correspond to our payments for purposes of defense, and similar impositions which did not work less misery then than now with the then system of widely scattered production, the paucity of statistics, and the weakness of the central authority as against the districts. The contradiction between the political power of the proletariat and their poor economic position became more and more marked. The affliction caused by the war was thereby rendered more acute. And in despair the rulers of the proletariat more and more rapidly adopted extreme measures and ended with a bloody terror.”

But as on the basis of private property during the war with its immense operations a new bourgeoisie was bound to arise, while want and the war exhausted the masses, the policy of terror necessarily ended with the defeat of Thermidor. And yet again: the illusion that men can introduce the “general well-being” had led the proletariat and their leaders to adopt the policy of terrorism, has “befooled” the proletariat and “reduced them to savagery” “without bringing them one step nearer freedom” – that is the “lucid” examination of the epoch of the Jacobin Terror by the leading theorist of the Second International.

But what was the actual state of affairs? First of all Robespierre, St. Just and the other leading men of the “Mountain” did not represent the proletariat at all and did not even desire to represent them. The party of the proletariat and of the proletarian petit-bourgeoisie was represented by Roux, Varlet, Dolivet, Chalier, Leclerc and other bearers of the Communist agitation who were fought in the fiercest manner and ultimately sent to the guillotine by the “Mountain” and the Robespierrian elements precisely because of their Communist tendencies. In a more modified form the Paris Commune, under the leadership of Chaumette (who likewise was sent to the guillotine by Robespierre) represented the proletarian interests. Robespierre and his government stood resolutely on the platform of bourgeois private property, and this found expression as follows in the Constitution of 1793:

“The right to property is granted to every citizen and the right to enjoy his income and the fruits of his labor and industry and to dispose of them as he thinks proper,”

and again!

“Not even the smallest part of his property can be taken from him except when demanded by public necessity, and then only on condition that just compensation be given.”

Robespierre was a representative of bourgeois Republicanism – neither more nor less. He came to power on the wave of the proletarian-petit-bourgeois movement when the French Revolution, after three years of existence, had not abolished either feudalism or the monarchy. Deceived by the Feuillants and the Girondists – that is, by the representatives of the constitutional nobility and large capital – the masses of the people returned the bourgeois democracy – the “Mountain” – to power. Against their radical bourgeois measures, the actual abolition of feudal dues (on 4th August, 1789, they were only abolished on paper), the realization of democracy, the decapitation of the King, etc. – the feudal counter-revolution entered into union with England, Prussia and Austria for a furious resistance. Then began the war on all fronts against the armies of the coalition as well as against domestic counter-revolution. The greatest scarcity prevailed throughout the country. The revolutionary armies had no shoes, clothing, or food. In the country ruined by feudalism, and suffering from the bad harvests of many years, there was a shortage of everything. What could a radical bourgeois government do in the circumstances? Had it been acquainted with Kautsky’s Erfurt Program it would perhaps have renounced its “illusions,” have given up the struggle and abandoned the country to feudalism. But since they, happily, had no presentiment of that gentleman’s castrated Marxism they sought no “statistical” reasons for abandoning the struggle, but fought with all the means at their disposal, including that of terrorism, against speculation and counter-revolutionary treachery and defeated the armies of the counter-revolution. How little they pursued illusions is shown by their struggle against the Communist current which strove for far-reaching, but at that time unattainable reforms. When the power of the feudal counter-revolution was broken the task of the bourgeois-terrorist Government was fulfilled. Even the bourgeoisie were unwilling to tolerate it any longer. That was the cause of the 9th of Thermidor, and of the fall of Robespierre.

This was well understood by Mignet although he wrote his history of the French Revolution almost a hundred years ago, and in the language of the Restoration. He says in his book:

The numerous victories of the Republic, to which its drastic measures or great enthusiasm greatly contributed, made violence on its part superfluous. It was the Committee of Public Safety which held down the interior of France with a strong and terrible hand, and at the same time opened sources of assistance, created armies, discovered field-marshals and achieved victories by which the triumph of the Revolution against Europe was ultimately assured. A favorable situation no longer demanded the same efforts, and the problem was solved, as it is the peculiar characteristic of such a dictatorship to save a country and a cause and to perish itself in the work of salvation.

The opposition which the Jacobin Terror showed to bourgeois private property means for Karl Kautsky no more than the bankruptcy of an illusion. A certain Frederick Engels, however, wrote:

In order that even those fruits of victory should be secured which were ripe at that time it was necessary that the revolution should be carried considerably beyond its goal – exactly as in France in 1793 and in Germany in 1848. This, in fact, appears to be a law of development of bourgeois society. (Historical Materialism)

In order finally to abolish feudal property and to trample the feudal restoration in the dust it was necessary for the bourgeois revolution to lay violent hands on bourgeois private property. It was bound to be wrecked in the long run, but its task – the destruction of feudalism could not have been accomplished without terrorism. Whoever asserts that it thereby “fooled” the proletariat and “brutalized” them, “without bringing them one step nearer to their freedom,” claims that the liberation of the proletariat is possible without overthrowing feudalism and absolutism. Such a one has indeed remained true to the high type of our ancestors, the apes, who, “for the most part, lived on a vegetable diet” (chewing the cud of the Marxian ABC) this nourishment being “now and then supplemented by smaller animals, caterpillars, worms, reptiles and even unfledged birds” (the slaughter of social-reformist professors and Revisionists) but will never understand a revolution not, even a bourgeois revolution let alone a proletarian one.

It was not always so with Kautsky. In his polemic against Eisner after the Amsterdam Congress he wrote as follows of the epoch of the Jacobin Terror:

“In the struggle of 1789-90 the lower masses of the people, especially in Paris, learned their power. They conquered, but the fruits of their victory were gathered by the possessing classes. The lower classes could not then stand aside. They had again to set forth on the path of liberty and equality in order to emerge from their poverty and oppression. But as the bourgeoisie resisted with all their power there was soon bound to be a desperate struggle between the two classes. The antagonism between the classes had grown more acute, thanks to the war which the allied monarchs of Europe waged against revolutionary France. In this war France could only win by the exertion of all her strength, and this could only be brought about through the reckless hatred of private property which animated the masses of the people. Then (1792–93) the monarchy was uprooted, universal suffrage proclaimed, the standing army abolished, and the arming of the people effected; and the wealth of the possessing classes was devoted to the support of the army and of the poor. And all this happened in the epoch of the Terror, in the period in which the bourgeoisie were intimidated.” (Unfortunately I have not the original by me, which appeared in Die Neue Zeit, 1904–5, and am obliged to retranslate from a Polish version of Kautsky’s work.)

In 1905 Kautsky was still so befooled and brutalized by the terrorism of Robespierre that he saw in the destruction of feudal absolutism, of the standing army, etc., a glory which caused him to recognize the epoch of the Terror as one of historical progress. “Marxism” did not prevent him from understanding history: it was not then emasculated. Only the approaching epoch of the proletarian social revolution caused Kautsky to break the weapon of Maxian historical criticism, as he generally rejects it at every encounter with the bourgeoisie. He cannot find pleasure in turning away from that which was great in the bourgeois revolution. He sought for the virtues of. the proletarian revolution in its vices and mistakes – in that which was the cause of its weakness. His praise goes out to the proletarians when they allow themselves to be shot down.”

We come now to his treatment of the Paris Commune of 1871 – to the second chapter of the “luminous” performance which has so enchanted Herr Haase.

Last updated on 18.10.2011