Trotsky on Our Sins

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Author(s) Bertrand Russell
Written 26 February 1926

From The New Leader, 26th February 1926
Collection(s): The New Leader

Trotsky’s new book is one of the most interesting that I have read for a long time, and up to a certain point, extraordinarily penetrating. There are certain errors of fact, but they are not important – e.g., that Joseph Chamberlain left Gladstone on the Protectionist issue, and that the present Parliamentary constituencies are gerrymandered so as to give a great advantage to the Conservatives.

On the politics of the British Labour Movement, Trotsky is remarkably well informed. A great deal of his criticism is to my mind, quite convincing. I leave on one side his personalities about leaders, which will be liked or disliked according as the reader dislikes or likes the leader in question. What is more important is his complaint that the Labour Party lacks a coherent theoretical outlook. Take, for example, the question of Republicanism. He quotes British Labour pronouncements to the effect that the royal authority does no harm, and that a king is cheaper than a president. He argues that in a time of critical conflict the bourgeoisie can make use of the royal authority with great success, as the concentration point for all the extra-parliamentary, that is to say, the real forces directed against the working class ... To proclaim a socialist programme, and at the same time declare that the royal authority “does not hinder” and works out cheaper, is absolutely the same as, for example, acknowledging materialistic science and making use of the incantation of a sorcerer for toothache, on the ground that the sorcerer is cheaper.

To hope to achieve Socialism without Republicanism is the sort of thing that could only occur among English-speaking people; it would hardly be possible for men with any profound knowledge of history, or any understanding of the economic and psychological links between different institutions. In spite of Mr. Brailsford’s remark to the contrary in the introduction, I should agree with Trotsky in saying the same of the Churches. Personal religion is a private matter; but organized religion, in the modern world, must be a reactionary force, even when its adherents ardently desire the opposite.

“But,” I shall be told, “how many Labour members would you get into Parliament if you attacked the monarchy and antagonized the Churches?” Here we come up against a most disastrous fallacy. It is thought that the important thing is to get Socialists elected to Parliament by hook or by crook, even if, in order to get elected, they have had to let it be understood that they will refrain from carrying out large parts of the Socialist programme. To secure a Government composed of professing Socialists is not the same thing as to secure Socialism; this has been proved in many European countries since the war. Socialism will never be actually established until the leaders are in earnest in desiring it; by this I mean not merely that they should favour it in the abstract, but that they should be willing, for its sake, to forego the amenities of bourgeois success, which are enjoyed by successful Labour politicians so long as they refrain from abolishing bourgeois privileges.

Another important point is illustrated by the analogy of Cromwell, upon which Trotsky dwells at some length. Cromwell, unlike most of the Parliament men, expressed a preference for soldiers convinced of the justice of the cause rather than “gentlemen,” and only by this means succeeded in achieving victory in spite of the opposition of his superior officers. In our day, in England, there seems to be hardly anyone whose belief in anything is sufficient to make him indifferent to “gentlemanliness”; certain Labour leaders are constantly led into weaknesses by the desire to have their opponents consider them gentlemen.” They do not seem to realize that the ideal of a “gentleman” is one of the weapons of the propertied classes; it precludes dirty tricks against the rich and powerful, but not against the poor and oppressed. This weakness is peculiarly British. We shall achieve nothing until we desire Socialism more than the approval of our enemies, which is only to be won by treachery, conscious or unconscious.

Our British passion for inconsistency and lack of philosophy is leading the Labour Movement astray. Cromwell had a complete philosophy, however absurd it may seem to us; so had the Benthamites who created the Liberal Party and the whole democratic movement of the nineteenth century. The Russian Communists have achieved what could never have been achieved by men who were content with a hotch-potch of amiable sentiments. it is useless to pretend, for instance, that Socialism is merely Christianity consistently carried out. Christianity is an agricultural religion, Socialism is industrial; it is not so much an affair of sentiment as of economic organization. And we British, like the young man who had great possessions, are prevented from thinking clearly by the vague realization that, if we did, we should have to abandon our imperialism; it is only by a skilful muddle-headedness that the Labour Party can inveigh against imperialists while taking care to retain the Empire and to carry on the tradition of oppression, as the late Government did in practice.

Let us, at least for the sake of argument, admit the whole of Trotsky’s indictment of our movement; what, then, shall we say of his programme for Britain? I say it is a programme which could only be advocated by an enemy or a fool; and Trotsky is not a fool. His view is that when we at last have a Labour Government with a clear parliamentary majority, the present leaders, both of the Right and the Left, will be as helpless as Kerensky, and will be swept away by resolute men of action.

The police, judiciary, army and militia will be on the side of the disorganizers, saboteurs and fascists. The bureaucratic apparatus must be destroyed, replacing the reactionaries by members of the Labour Party. [But such meagre measures] will extraordinarily sharpen the legal and illegal opposition of the united bourgeois reaction. In other words, this is also the way of civil war ... In the event of the victory of the proletariat, there will ensue the shattering of the opposition of the exploiters by means of revolutionary dictatorship.

It is odd how Trotsky’s realism fails him at this point. Much of his book is taken up in proving how our economic position has deteriorated, and how we have become dependent upon the United States. Yet when he speaks of a Communist revolution, he always argues as though we were economically self-subsistent. It is obvious that French (if not British) aeroplanes and American (if not British) warships would soon put an end to the Communist regime; or, at the lowest, an economic blockade would destroy our export trade and therefore deprive us of our food supply.

There are some bombastic sentences about the sympathy to be expected from Soviet Russia. But until Soviet Russia can place a fleet in the Atlantic stronger than that of America, it is not clear what we should gain by sympathy, however enthusiastic. To secure economic independence without naval supremacy, we should have to reduce our population to about twenty millions. While this was being effected by starvation, no doubt Trotsky’s sympathy would be a great comfort; but, on the whole, most of us would rather remain alive without it than die with it.

The fact is that Trotsky hates Britain and British imperialism, not without good reason, and is therefore not to be trusted when he gives advice. We have become, through our dependence upon foreign food, so hopelessly entangled in world politics that it is impossible for us to advance at a pace which America will not tolerate.

Trotsky himself says: “In the decisive struggle against the proletariat the British bourgeoisie will avail themselves of the most powerful support of the bourgeoisie of the United States, while the working class will base itself mainly on the working class of Europe and the oppressed peoples of the British colonies.” It is scarcely credible that he should suppose our food supply would continue under such circumstances. I am afraid that, like the rest of us, he is a patriot when it comes to the pinch: a Communist revolution in England would be advantageous to Russia, and therefore he advises it without considering impartially whether it would be advantageous to us. The arguments against it, so far from being sentimental or visionary, are strategical and economic. The Pacifism which he dislikes in the British Labour Movement is forced upon it by the dependence upon America which has resulted from our participation in the Great War. If he really desires the spread of Communism, and not merely the collapse of England, it is time for him to turn his attention to the American Federation of Labour.