Th. Rothstein 1917

The Defence of the Russian Republic

Source: The Call, 12 April 1917, p. 4 (Originally written under his pseudonym John Bryan)
Transcribed: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

A Russian friend of the present writer, who had hitherto regarded himself as an Internationalist, made to him, in the course of an interesting conversation on the Russian Revolution, the following remark: “The Russian Revolution, though effected mainly by the efforts of the Socialist proletariat, is not a Socialist revolution. It is a middle-class revolution which will establish in the country the rule of democracy. Of course, middle-class democracy is not everything, but it is a sufficiently precious acquisition to be defended against Germany. I am, therefore, for national defence.” As several speakers, both Russian and English, expressed themselves in the same sense at the recent meetings in Queen’s and Kingsway Halls, one is justified in assuming that the point of view put forward by the writer’s friend is rather widely shared. It amounts to this, that Russia being on a fair way of becoming a democratic republic, she is now worth fighting for with a view to her protection against the German Kaiserdom and Junkerdom.

It is a plausible and very captivating argument, but, of course, it is not new. It has all along been the argument of the French Socialists, both of the “majority” and the “minority,” who have insisted that it is both their right and their duty to defend the work of the great French Revolution and the existence of the Republic against the Absolutist Monarchy of Prusso-Germany. The Russian Internationalists, therefore, who now argue in favour of national defence by Russian Socialists, are only repeating the words of the French patriotic Socialists, which they themselves opposed in the past. Either the French patriotic Socialists have been right all along, and in that case the Internationalists were wrong; or the French patriotic Socialists have been wrong, and then the Russian internationalists, now turned patriotic, are now also wrong. There is, and can be no third view.

In our opinion, the French patriotic Socialists have all along been wrong, and so are now also their Russian imitators. Their attitude betrays, in the first place, a signal misconception of the character of the present war. The French socialists have all through their career lived much too exclusively in the traditions of the first French Revolution. That was always their misfortune, but it became a positive disaster during this war. They still picture to themselves the condition of things which prevailed in 1793, when Continental Absolutism mobilised its forces with view to crushing the French Revolution and effecting a restoration of the ancien regime. The impression left on the French mind by the struggle of that period was afterwards deepened by the part played by Russia under Nicholas I., who, as is well known, was only prevented from sending his troops to suppress the Belgian Revolution of 1830 by a rebellion in his own Empire (the Polish insurrection of that year), and who actually crushed the Hungarian Revolution eighteen years afterwards. But the present war originated and is being fought out, so to speak, on a totally different place. It is an imperialist war, which has for its source the rivalry of the various capitalist Powers in the financial and colonial markets of the world, and has to settle how the world is to be divided among these rivals. What has the political form of the State to do with it? Russia started it when she was still an Autocracy. France supported though she is a Republic, Rumania was drawn into it, though she was an abominable oligarchy, and America now joins in it wider a Democratic Administration. And, on the other side, we see semi-Absolutist Germany fighting shoulder to shoulder with democratic Bulgaria and a nondescript, bureaucratic, non-national Monarchy standing side by side with a pronouncedly nationalist State. The political forms of these States are as varied as the colours of the rainbow, and the only thing they have in common is a capitalist class in power or emerging to power. It is between these capitalist classes that the fight is proceeding, and not between the political forms of the State which the State, which they respectively use as their instrument. Hence the analogy with the period of the French Revolution is false, and the “defence” of the Russian Republic against the Prusso-German Kaiserdom is but an excuse for vulgar patriotism. The Russian Republic is not threatened by Germany, and if it is in danger at all, it is so at the hands of Russia’s own Imperialists and own Allies. (Observe the agitation of the powerful Northcliffe Press against the “extremists” and its tears over the fate of the “poor” Tsar.)

But; in the second place, have our friends thought out the meaning of the word “defence,” in its military application, at all? Defence, in that application, does not mean the saint, as “defence” in a political sense. It means not only repelling the attacks of the enemy, but also their anticipation, their frustration in advance by means of a preventive offensive, the pursuance of the enemy beyond his own lines, the invasion, if needs be, of his own territory, and ultimately the breaking of his will. But when it comes to this reciprocal game of attack and counter-attack, of offensive and counter-offensive, does not the word “defence” become applicable also to the position of the enemy? Or has the enemy, if he has not a republic, nothing to “defend”: The patriotic Socialists of Germany also declare that they have something important to defend against all comers: their social legislation, their trade union and Socialist movement, their splendid municipal organisation, their schools, their industry, in all of which Germany is far in advance of all other countries, and all of which Germany would lose in case of defeat, dismemberment and liability to a large indemnity. Are those acquisitions worth nothing, and are democratic institutions the only thing worth fighting for? What reply could one give to these arguments from the point of view of national defence? It is obvious that from that point of view war becomes an eternal process, working dialectically, now in favour of one and then in favour of another country.

It is, indeed, perfectly futile to talk of “national defence” in an era of capitalist Imperialist rivalries, when one’s country, whether it be a republic or an autocracy, is threatened and threatens other countries in turn, or even at the same time, just on account of those rivalries. A Russian or French or American Republic is still a Republic of the bourgeois classes, and its conflicts with other States are conflicts of the ruling capitalist interests. In the present instance it is the less justifiable to speak of the “defence” of the Russian or French Republic, as peace can be had at any moment if only the Allies were to accept Germany’s offer to enter into negotiations. It is the Allies who are now protracting the war, and it is Germany who is entitled to plead “national defence.”

Let the people of Russia and the Allied countries compel their respective Governments to proclaim that they are prepared to make peace on the basis of no annexations and no indemnities; then, if Germany should refuse such terms, there will be time enough to talk of “national defence”.