Leon Trotsky

On Churchill

(April 1929)

Written: April 1929.
First published: John O’London’s Weekly, 20 April 1929.
Source: The New International, Vol. VIII No. 8, September 1942, pp. 230–232.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

In 1929, Winston Churchill published his book on the war, The Aftermath, in part of which he painted a violently distorted pen-portrait of Lenin. His remarks aroused considerable controversy at the time. Among the commentators was Lenin’s closest collaborator in the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had just been exiled to Turkey by the Stalin regime, but he immediately wrote a sharp attack on Churchill. It was printed in the April 20, 1929, issue of John O’London’s Weekly, a British periodical. It is reprinted here for the first time in the United States. – Editor

In 1918–19 Mr. Churchill attempted to overthrow Lenin by force of arms. In 1929 he attempts a psychological and political portraiture of him in his book, The Aftermath. Perhaps he was hoping thereby to secure some sort of literary revenge for his unsuccessful appeal to the sword. But his methods are no less inadequate in the second mode of attack than they were in the first.

“His [Lenin’s] sympathies cold and wide as the Arctic Ocean. His hatreds tight as the hangman’s noose,” writes Mr. Churchill. Verily, he juggles with antitheses as an athlete with dumb-bells. But the observant eye soon notices that the dumb-bells are painted cardboard and the bulging biceps are eked out with padding.

The true Lenin was instinct with moral force – a force whose main characteristic was its absolute simplicity. To try to assess him in terms of stage athletics was bound to spell failure.

Mr. Churchill’s facts are miserably inaccurate. Consider his dates, for instance. He repeats a sentence, which he has read somewhere or other, referring to the morbid influence exercised on Lenin’s evolution by the execution of his elder brother. He refers the fact to the year 1894. But actually the attempt against Alexander III’s life was organized by Alexander Ulianov (Lenin’s brother) on March 1, 1887. Mr. Churchill avers that in 1894 Lenin was sixteen years of age. In point of fact, he was then twenty-four, and in charge of the secret organization at Petersburg. At the time of the October Revolution he was not thirty-nine, as Mr. Churchill would have it, but forty-seven years old. Mr. Churchill’s errors in chronology show how confusedly he visualizes the period and people of which he writes.

But when from the point of view of chronology and fisticuffs we turn to that of the philosophy of history, what we see is even more lamentable.

Mr. Churchill tells us that discipline in the Russian army was destroyed, after the February Revolution, by the order abolishing the salute to officers. This was the point of view of discontented old generals and ambitious young subalterns; otherwise, it is merely absurd. The old army stood for the supremacy of the old classes and was destroyed by the revolution. When peasants had taken away the landowner’s property the peasant’s sons could hardly continue to serve under officers who were sons of landowners. The army is no mere technical organization, associated only with marching and promotion, but a moral organization, founded on a definite scheme of mutual relations between individuals and classes. When a scheme of this kind is upset by a revolution, the army unavoidably collapses. It was always thus ...

Churchill and Birkenhead – Two Muddlers

Mr. Churchill grants that Lenin had a powerful mind and will. According to Lord Birkenhead, Lenin was purely and simply non-existent: what really exists is a Lenin myth (see his letter in The Times, February 26, 1929). The real Lenin was a nonentity upon which the colleagues of Arnold Bennett’s Lord Raingo could look down contemptuously. But despite this one difference in their appraisement of Lenin, both Tories are exactly alike in their utter incapacity to understand Lenin’s writings on economy, on politics, and on philosophy – writings that fill over twenty volumes.

I suspect that Mr. Churchill did not even deign to take the trouble carefully to read the article on Lenin which I wrote for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1926. If he had, he would not have committed those crude, glaring errors of dates which throw everything out of perspective.

One thing Lenin could not tolerate was muddled thought. He had lived in all European countries, mastered many languages, had read and studied and listened and observed and compared and generalized. When he became the head of a revolutionary country, he did not fail to avail himself of this opportunity to learn, conscientiously and carefully. He did not cease to follow the life of all other countries. He could read and speak fluently English, German and French, He could read Italian and a number of Slavonic languages. During the last years of his life, though overburdened with work, he devoted every spare minute to studying the grammar of the Czech language in order to have access, without intermediaries, to the inner life of Czechoslovakia.

What can Mr. Churchill and Lord Birkenhead know of the workings of this forceful, piercing, tireless mind of his, with its capacity to translate everything that was superficial, accidental, external, into terms of the general and fundamental? Lord Birkenhead, in blissful ignorance, imagines that Lenin never had thought of the password: “Power to the Soviets,” before the revolution of February 1917. But the problem of the Soviets and of their possible functions was the very central theme of the work of Lenin and of his companions from 1905 onwards, and even earlier.

By way of completing and correcting Mr. Churchill, Lord Birkenhead avers that if Kerensky had been gifted with a single ounce of intelligence and courage, the Soviets would never have come into power. Here is, indeed, a philosophy of history that is conducive to comfort! The army falls to pieces in consequence of the soldiers having decided not to salute the officers whom they meet. The contents of the cranium of a radical barrister happens to have been one ounce short, and this deficiency is enough to lead to the destruction of a pious and civilized community! But what indeed can a civilization be worth which at the time of dire need is unable to supply the needful ounce of brain?

Besides, Kerensky did not stand alone. Around him was a whole circle of Entente officials. Why were they unable to instruct and inspire him, or, if need was, replace him? To this query Mr. Churchill can find but this reply: “The statesmen of the Allied nations affected to believe that all was for the best, and that the revolution constituted a notable advantage for the common cause” – which means that the officials in question were utterly incapable of understanding the Russian Revolution – or, in other words, did not substantially differ from Kerensky himself.

Lord Birkenhead Expounds

Today, Lord Birkenhead is incapable of seeing that Lenin, in signing the Brest-Litovsk peace, had shown any particular foresight. (I do not insist upon the fact that Lord Birkenhead represents me as in favor of war with Germany in 1918. The honorable Conservative, on this point, follows far too docilely the utterances of historians of the Stalin school.) He considers, today, that the peace was then inevitable. In his own words, “only hysterical fools” could have imagined that the Bolsheviks were capable of fighting Germany: a very remarkable, though tardy, acknowledgment!

The British government of 1918 and, indeed, all the Entente governments of that time, categorically insisted on our fighting Germany, and when we refused to do so replied by blockade of, and intervention in, our country. We may well ask, in the energetic language of the Conservative politician himself: Where were, at that moment, the hysterical fools? Was it not they who decided the fate of Europe? Lord Birkenhead’s view would have been very far-seeing in 1917: but I must confess that I, for one, have little use for far-sight which asserts itself twelve years after the time when it could have been of use.

Lenin’s “Recklessness”

Mr. Churchill brings up against Lenin – and it is the very keystone of his article – statistics of the casualties of the civil war. These statistics are quite fantastic. This however, is not the main point. The victims were many on either side. Mr. Churchill expressly specifies that he includes neither the deaths from starvation nor the deaths from epidemics. In his would-be athletic language he describes that neither Tamerlane nor Ghengis Khan were as reckless as Lenin in expenditure of human lives. Judging by the order he adopts, one would think Churchill holds Tamerlane more reckless than Ghengis Khan. In this he is wrong; statistical and chronological figures are certainly not the strong point of this Finance Minister. But this is by the way.

In order to find examples of mass expenditure of human life, Mr. Churchill must needs go to the history of Asia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The great European war of 1914–18, in which ten million men were killed and twenty million crippled, appears to have entirely escaped his memory. The campaigns of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane were child’s play in comparison with the doings of civilized nations from 1914 to 1918. But it is in a tone of lofty moral indignation that Mr. Churchill speaks of the victims of civil war in Russia – forgetting Ireland, and India, and other countries.

In short, the question is not so much the victims as it is the duties and the objects for which war was waged. Mr. Churchill wishes to make clear that all sacrifices, in all parts of the world, are permissible and right so long as the object is the power and sovereignty of the British Empire – that is, of its governing classes. But the incomparably lesser sacrifices are wrong which result from the struggle of peoples attempting to alter the conditions under which they exist – as occurred in England in the seventeenth century, in France at the end of the eighteenth, in the United States twice (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), in Russia in the twentieth century, and as will occur more than once in the future.

Churchill, Leader of Reaction

It is vainly that Mr. Churchill seeks assistance in the evocation of the two Asiatic warrior chiefs, who both fought in the interests of nomadic aristocracies, but yet aristocracies coveting new territories and more slaves – in which respect their dealings were in accordance with Mr. Churchill’s principles, but certainly not with Lenin’s. Indeed, we may recall that Anatole France, the last of the great humanists, often expressed the idea that of all kinds of the bloodthirsty insanity called war, the least insane was civil war, because at least the people who waged it did so of their own accord and not by order.

Mr. Churchill has committed yet another mistake, a very important one and indeed, from his own point of view, a fatal one. He forgot that in civil wars, as in all wars, there are two sides; and that in this particular case if he had not come in on the side of a very small minority, the number of the victims would have been considerably less. In October, we conquered power almost without a fight. Kerensky’s attempt to reconquer it evaporated as a dewdrop falling on a red-hot stone. So mighty was the driving power of the masses that the older classes hardly dared attempt to resist.

When did the civil war, with its companion, the Red Terror, really start? Mr. Churchill being weak in the matter of chronology, let us help him. The turning point was the middle of 1918. Led by the Entente diplomatists and officers, the Czechoslovakians got hold of the railway line leading to the East. The French ambassador, Noulens, organized the resistance at Yaroslavl. Another foreign representative organized deeds of terror and an attempt to cut off the water supply of Petersburg. Mr. Churchill encourages and finances Savinkov; he is behind Yudenich. He determines the exact dates on which Petersburg and Moscow are to fall. He supports Denikin and Wrangel. The monitors of the British fleet bombard our coast. Mr. Churchill proclaims the coming of “fourteen nations.” He is the inspirer, the organizer, the financial backer, the prophet of civil war: a generous backer, a mediocre organizer, and a very bad prophet.

He had been better advised not to recall the memories of those times. The number of the victims would have been, not ten times, but a hundred or a thousand times smaller but for British guineas, British monitors, British tanks, British officers, and British food supplies.

Mr. Churchill understands neither Lenin nor the duties that lay before him. His lack of comprehension is at its worst when he attempts to deal with the inception of the New Economic Policy. For him, Lenin thereby gave himself the lie. Lord Birkenhead adds that in ten years the very principles of the October Revolution were bankrupt. Yes: he who in ten years failed to do away with the miners’ unemployment, or to palliate it, expects that in ten years we Russians can build up a new community without committing one mistake, without one flaw, without one setback; a wonderful expectation which gives us the measure of the primitive and purely theoretical quality of the honorable Conservative’s outlook. We cannot foretell how many errors, how many set-backs, will mark the course of history; but to see, amid the obstacles and deviations and set-backs of all kinds, the straight line of historical evolution was the achievement of Lenin’s genius. And had the Restoration been successful at the time, the need for radical changes in the organization of the community would have remained as great.

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Last updated on: 19 January 2015