Theo Rothstein May 1904

The War - and After

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. VIII, No. 5, May 15, 1904, pp.331-337;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Since I wrote last on the subject of the present conflict in the Far East - it was at the time of the rupture of the negotiations - scarcely four months have elapsed, and already Japan figures, in the unani­mous opinion of the world, as a first-rate military Power, whilst the Colossus of the North has turned out to be a Colossus on clay feet. With an amazing swiftness and vigour Japan has smitten her enemy hip and thigh, and there is not the slightest doubt now that whatever successes - if any - there may be in store yet for Russia will be entirely due to the blind chances of war, whilst every victory that Japan will gain will be as necessary and inevitable in the course of things as fate itself. We have here a case strikingly analogous to that of the Franco-Prussian war. On the one hand we have a nation young enough and enthusiastic enough to learn and wish to learn, which is not corrupted as yet by wealth, power and success, which takes its tasks seriously and goes about its work carefully, with patient and minute study, with hard and methodical labour; and on the other, we have a despotic Empire based on ignorance and suppression of every live idea, which by a natural process of selection draws to it everything that is base and incapable and drives away or suppresses all that is noble, honest and able. The very principle of irresponsibility on which the Empire rests militates against the efficiency and purity of its administration, and so whatever resources, military or financial, it may claim to possess in reality represents to a very large extent nothing but paper. Of a conflict between two Powers, equipped respec­tively as above, the issue cannot be uncertain; it is on the field of battle that historical Nemesis has always, from time immemorial, taken its revenge of maladministration at home. It is thus that the vast Persian Empire of Darius crumbled to pieces under the blows of the youthful Macedonian conqueror; it is thus that the Spanish world-Empire of Philip II. was torn to rags by the numerous enemies within and with­out; it is thus that the brilliant Second Empire of the little Napoleon was ignominiously strangled at Sedan and Metz; and it is thus that the mighty Russian Empire will break down on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

There is really no mystery whatever about the whole affair. It is only the bourgeois mind, with its lack of understanding for the organic connection of sociological phenomena, that can suppose an autocratic form of government to be the best calculated to pro­mote military efficiency. It is to this mind - apart from individuals here and there who have made an impartial and concrete study of the position, without, however, any guidance by a general principle of some sort - it is to this mind, I say, that the present defeats of the Russians have come largely as a revelation - just as 33 years ago the defeats of the French - and are even now regarded solely from an accidental point of view, as a matter of personal incompetence of the Russian war administration. They do not see the very simple, the very plain fact, that under an auto­cracy such as Russia is saddled with - that is, an auto­cracy which has far outlived the days when it, so to speak, spontaneously sprang up as a social force for purposes of social organisation - even the personal incompetence of Ministers and generals is no more an accident than, say, the growth of parasitism in a polluted atmosphere. It is, indeed, a phenomenon as law-determined - to use a philosophical term, "gesetzmässig" - as any in the domain of nature or society. To be surprised at it, or even to have foreseen it but merely on the strength of empirical observation, reveals, as I said before, a lamentable lack of sociological understanding. Rather should have those, whose business it was to form a judg­ment, accepted this matter of personal incompetence as a premise from which they started, and then study the concrete conditions in order to find out whether there are not any counteracting agencies at work.

But, then, personal competence or incompetence in modern warfare is not everything. Even incompetent generals may sometimes "muddle through," as the Britishers have shown in South Africa, and even com­petent men may sometimes meet with disasters, as Napoleon did on the snowfields of Russia. What is required, above all, is organisation and finance, and it is in the ability for the one and in the possession of the other that every autocracy which has outlasted the need of the time is deficient. As regards organisa­tion, it is plain that in spite of the principle of subordi­nation and hierarchy which it formally represents - and it is this formality which misleads the bourgeois political thinker - autocracy is really the very last political form under which an efficient organisation, be it civil or military, can flourish. It makes of every little link in the hierarchical chain a satrap who will resist or frustrate, if he does not like it, every order that is sent to him from above. It shelters every incapable or corrupt official who has any connection of sufficient social importance, lest his protectors get offended or the prestige of the authority suffers. It, lastly, shuts out public initiative and control, which alone can guarantee the progress and honest working of the organisation. All these organic faults of autocracy have been demonstrated over and over again by the facts of history, and, though no bureaucratic or military system can be free from such defects, yet autocracy more than any other political regime puts a direct premium on them. With regard to finance, the case is still plainer. Autocracy by its very nature is an incubus on the economic and social structure of society, and what with its own extravagance - it cannot rule without pomp and circumstance for two consecu­tive days - and the rapacity and dishonesty of an irresponsible officialdom, it undermines the very roots of national economic existence, and cannot, conse­quently, obtain the necessary money when it wants it. This, the case with every historical autocracy, is still more the case with an autocracy like that of Russia, which has to keep abreast of all modern military, diplomatic, and other requirements. No wonder that it has only been able to make the two ends meet by large borrowings of foreign capital.

If we take all these circumstances into consideration, we shall see that the disasters which have befallen the Russian arms were quite inevitable. Indeed, it would have been a downright miracle - a thing that would have traversed every law - if it had been other­wise. And that means that the ultimate doom, too, is inevitable. It cannot be averted except, perhaps, at the cost of a most stupendous sacrifice of human lives by hunger, disease, and bullet, and of the utter exhaus­tion - to the very dregs - of every available economic resource of the nation. To such lengths, however, even autocracy will not be able to proceed, unless the nation backs it up, and it is, of course, more than question­able if it will do so. The war is not, as in 1812, an invasion of the national territory, and its object is not such as to inspire the people with a self-abandoning patriotism.

But, whatever the precise nature of the issue may be, Russia will emerge from the struggle terribly exhausted and bereft of all the military prestige which she has hitherto enjoyed. It is now becoming patent even to her continental well-wishers that she really is a mere Colossus on clay feet, and that all who have so long regarded her with fear and awe have simply allowed themselves to be duped by her atrocious airs and specious assurances. Already England congratu­lates herself - by the mouth of the Times military critic  - on having in India no more dangerous neighbour than Russia; indeed, she is already acting upon that idea in Thibet. The same, no doubt, as the disasters roll one after the other, will be felt by the more friendly Powers - by Germany, Austria, and even France. In the present conditions of international robbery friend­ship really counts very little, and when the "salutary" fear which stays the arm of a rival or the high opinion of one's strength which attracts an ally is gone, friend­ship, too, quickly evaporates, and gives place to sinister designs in the one case, and to studied coldness in the other. England in Thibet and Persia, Germany in Asia Minor, Austria in the Balkans all present grave dangers to the Russian Empire; whilst France, button­ing up her pocket, is as unpleasant a perspective as any.

To these external dangers to which a weakened and discredited Russia is necessarily exposed are to be added the dangers which may at any moment arise at home. Almost the entire periphery of European Russia consists of conquered territories - conquered, but not pacified. Such is Finland, such are the Baltic Provinces, such is Poland, such is the Caucasus. They all are in a state of chronic dis­content, in many places bordering on rebellion, and what with the State-power exhausted to the utmost, and with an acute economic crisis adding fuel to the smothering fire, they may leap forward and try to break their chains.

Thus Imperial Russia, after the war, will stand exposed to the gravest perils, and even should they never come to be realised, the very prospect - nay, the mere possibility of them - is bound to prove a matter of the deepest concern to her governing classes. It will mean that autocracy, so far from insuring the existence of the State - their State - has, on the contrary, brought it to the verge of ruin, and the position will thus be similar to that in which Russia found her­self after the Crimean war. At that time, too, the whole course of the war revealed the rottenness of the antiquated social system of Russia, which, based, as it was, on serfdom, militated against efficiency, good administration and general progress. The governing class, even the Court circles themselves, understood that unless vast reforms in the economic, administrative, and even political fabric of the country were introduced  - above all, unless serfdom were abolished - the Russian State would crumble to pieces, and so the Autocrat him­self emancipated the peasants and introduced a series of sweeping reforms, such as local self-government, town and country, public trial by jury, greater freedom of the press, &c., which have made the sixties of the last century for ever memorable in the annals of Russian history. The same is bound to repeat itself now. Already signs are not wanting to show in what direction the minds of those who stand round the throne are working. We had, some little time ago, the reac­tionary paper, Russ, mooting the question, Who is our enemy? and replying to it in the sense that our enemies are two-fold - an external enemy, Japan, and an inner one - the backward social state of the nation. More than that, under the muzzled con­ditions of the press, it could not say, but it was not difficult to read what it meant between the lines. If such ideas occur to the most reactionary minds, and - what is as important - are expressed at a time when the course of the war has barely begun to show up the national danger of autocracy, we can well imagine what it will be when the war is finished and the national balance-sheet of disasters, humiliation, economic exhaustion and foreign and home dangers is made up. We shall then have what we had on a smaller scale after the Crimean war - Autocracy endangers the existence of the State. Autocracy must go!

No doubt, when the governing classes say: Autocracy must go, they do not necessarily think of a Republic or of a constitutional Monarchy like that of England. They may not even think of that absolutism adorned by a fig-leaf, as Liebknecht called it, which is represented by the constitution of Germany. They may find out some such form of a political constitution as will ensure the maximum of autocratic power com­patible with the absolutely necessary amount of social control and participation in the task of government. But whether they will succeed in realising such a hybrid constitution, or will have to concede a larger modicum of political power to the nation, will entirely depend on the nation itself. The reforms which autocracy has introduced during the sixties were largely mutilated and incomplete. That they have not been more radical and fuller is entirely due to the absence at the time of any large and organised popular movement in their favour. But that withal they have been such as they were - that, for instance, the peasants were emancipated with land, and not let loose in the wide world without a shred of landed property, as had originally been intended by the Government - we owe also almost entirely to the agitation that proceeded from the small group of the Socialists and Radicals of the period. Similarly it will be now. If there should be a strong popular movement going in for the "whole hog," the governing classes, when giving up autocracy, will proceed much further than they now intend. Should, however, such a popular movement not make itself felt at the time, or not be strong or organised enough to represent a force to be reckoned with, then the governing classes will not even grant that which they themselves now regard as needful. It is at that critical juncture that the Russian revolutionary Social-Democracy will have to justify its existence, and it is for that justification that it has to set to work at once, without a moment's delay, leaving everything else aside.