Leon Trotsky

Terrorism and Communism


By H.N. Brailsford

It has been said of the Bolsheviks that they are more interestng than Bolshevism. To those who hold to the economic interpretation of history that may seem a heresy. None the less, I believe that the personality not merely of the leaders but also of their party goes far to explain the making and survival of the Russian Revolution. To us in the West they seem a wholly foreign type. With Socialist leaders and organizations we and our fathers have been familiar for three-quarters of a century. There has been no lack of talent and even of genius among them. The movement has produced its great theorist in Marx, its orator in Jaurès, its powerful tacticians like Bebel, and it has influenced literature in Morris, Anatole France and Shaw. It bred, however, no considerable man of action, and it was left for the Russians to do what generations of Western Socialists had spent their lives in discussing. There was in this Russian achievement an almost barbaric simplicity and directness. Here were men who really believed the formulæ of our theorists and the resolutions of our Congresses. What had become for us a sterilized and almost respectable orthodoxy rang to their ears as a trumpet call to action. The older generation has found it difficult to pardon their sincerity. The rest of us want to understand the miracle.

The real audacity of the Bolsheviks lay in this, that they made a proletarian revolution precisely in that country which, of all portions of the civilized world, seemed the least prepared for it by its economic development. For an agrarian revolt, for the subdivision of the soil, even for the overthrow of the old governing class, Russia was certainly ready. But any spontaneous revolution, with its foundations laid in the masses of the peasantry, would have been individualistic and not communistic. The daring of the Bolsheviks lay in their belief that the minute minority of the urban working class could, by its concentration, its greater intelligence and its relative capacity for organization, dominate the inert peasant mass, and give to their outbreak of land-hunger the character and form of a constructive proletarian revolution. The bitter struggle among Russian parties which lasted from March, 1917, down to the defeat of Wrangel in November, 1920, was really an internecine competition among them for the leadership of the peasants. Which of these several groups could enlist their confidence, to the extent of inducing them not merely to fight, but to accept the discipline, military and civilian, necessary for victory? At the start the Bolsheviks had everything against them. They are nearly all townsmen. They talked in terms of a foreign and very German doctrine. Few of them, save Lenin, grasped the problems of rural life at all. The landed class should at least have known the peasant better. Their chief rivals were the Social Revolutionaries; a party which from its first beginnings had made a cult of the Russian peasant, studied him, idealized him and courted him, which even seemed in 1917 to have won him. Many circumstances explain the success of the Bolsheviks, who proved once again in history the capacity of the town, even when its population is relatively minute, for swift and concentrated action. They also had the luck to deal with opponents who committed the supreme mistake of invoking foreign aid. But none of these advantages would have availed without an immense superiority of character. The Slav temperament, dreamy, emotional, undisciplined, showed itself at its worst in the incorrigible self-indulgence of the more aristocratic “Whites,” while the “intellectuals” of the moderate Socialist and Liberal groups have been ruined for action by their exclusively literary and æsthetic education. The Bolsheviks may be a less cultivated group, but, in their underground life of conspiracy, they had learned sobriety, discipline, obedience, and mutual confidence. Their rigid dogmatic Marxist faith gives to them the power of action which belongs only to those who believe without criticism or question. Their ability to lead depends much less than most Englishmen suppose, on their ruthlessness and their readiness to practise the arts of intimidation and suppression. Their chief asset is their self-confidence. In every emergency they are always sure that they have the only workable plan. They stand before the rest of Russia as one man. They never doubt or despair, and even when they compromise, they do it with an air of truculence. Their survival amid invasion, famine, blockade, and economic collapse has been from first to last a triumph of the unflinching will and the fanatical faith. They have spurred a lazy and demoralized people to notable feats of arms and to still more astonishing feats of endurance. To hypnotize a nation in this fashion is, perhaps, the most remarkable feat of the human will in modern times.

This book is, so far, by far the most typical expression of the Bolshevik temperament which the revolution has produced. Characteristically it is a polemic, and not a constructive essay. Its self-confidence, its dash, even its insolence, are a true expression of the movement. Its author bears a world famous name. Everyone can visualize the powerful head, the singularly handsome features, the athletic figure of the man. He makes in private talk an impression of decision and definiteness. He is not rapid or expansive in speech, for everything that he says is calculated and clear cut. One has the sense that one is in the presence of abounding yet disciplined vitality. The background is an office which by its military order and punctuality rebukes the habitual slovenliness of Russia. On the platform his manner was much quieter than I expected. He spoke rather slowly, in a pleasant tenor voice, walking to and fro across the stage and choosing his words, obviously anxious to express his thoughts forcibly but also exactly. A flash of wit and a striking phrase came frequently, but the manner was emphatically not that of a demagogue. The man, indeed, is a natural aristocrat, and his tendency, which Lenin, the aristocrat by birth, corrects, is towards military discipline and authoritative regimentation.

There is nothing surprising to-day in the note of authority which one hears in Trotsky’s voice and detects in his writing, for he is the chief of a considerable army, which owes everything to his talent for organization. It was at Brest-Litovsk that he displayed the audacity which is genius. Up to that moment there was little in his career to distinguish him from his comrades of the revolutionary underworld – a university course cut short by prison, an apprenticeship to agitation in Russia, some years of exile spent in Vienna, Paris, and New York, the distinction which he shares with Tchitcherin of “sitting” in a British prison, a ready wit, a gift of trenchant speech, but as yet neither the solid achievement nor the legend which gives confidence. Yet this obscure agitator, handicapped in such a task by his Jewish birth, faced the diplomatist and soldiers of the Central Empires, flushed as they were with victory and the insolence of their kind, forced them into public debate, staggered them by talking of first principles as though the defeat and impotence of Russia counted for nothing, and actually used the negotiations to shout across their heads his summons to their own subjects to revolt. He showed in this astonishing performance the grace and audacity of a “matador.” This unique bit of drama revealed the persistent belief of the Bolsheviks in the power of the defiant challenge, the magnetic effect of sheer will. Since this episode his services to the revolution have been more solid but not less brilliant. He had no military knowledge or experience, yet he took in hand the almost desperate task of creating an army. He has often been compared to Carnot. But, save that both had lost officers, there was little in common between the French and the Russian armies in the early stages of the two revolutions. The French army had not been demoralized by defeat, or wearied by long inaction, or sapped by destructive propaganda. Trotsky had to create his Red Army from the foundations. He imposed firm discipline, and yet contrived to preserve the plan of the revolutionary spirit. Hampered by the inconceivable difficulties that arose from ruined railways and decayed industries, he none the less contrived to make a military machine which overthrew the armies of Kolchak , Denikin and Wrangel, with the flower of the old professional officers at their head. As a feat of organization under inordinate difficulties, his work ranks as the most remarkable performance of the revolution.

It is not the business of a preface to anticipate the argument of a book, still less to obtrude personal opinions. Kautsky’s labored essay, to which this book is the brilliant reply, has been translated into English, and is widely known. The case against the possibility of political democracy in a capitalist society could hardly be better put than in these pages, and the polemic against purely evolutionary methods is formidable. The English reader of to-day is aware, however, that the Russian revolution has not stood still since Trotsky wrote. We have to realize that, even in the view of the Bolsheviks themselves, the evolution towards Communism is in Russia only in its early stages. The recent compromises imply, at the best, a very long period of transition, through controlled capitalist production, to Socialism. Experience has proved that catastrophic revolution and the seizure of political power do not in themselves avail to make a Socialist society. The economic development in that direction has actually been retarded, and Russia, under the stress of civil war, has retrogaded into a primitive village system of production and exchange. To every reader’s mind the question will be present whether the peculiar temperament of the Bolsheviks has led them to overestimate the importance of political power, to underestimate the inert resistance of the majority, and to risk too much for the illusion of dictating. To that question history has not yet given the decisive answer. The dæmonic will that made the revolution and defended it by achieving the impossible may yet vindicate itself against the dull trend of impersonal forces.

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Last updated on: 24.12.2006