Books: The Russian Terror [Review of The Guillotine at Work]

The Guillotine at Work. Twenty Years of Terror in Russia. by G.P. Maximoff. (The Chicago Section of the Alexander Berkman Fund, 2422 N. Halstead St., Chicago, Ill.). $3.50.

This is a formidable work of over six hundred pages, and is one of the most impressive indictments ever brought against a political regime. The author, a veteran revolutionist and active participator in the Russian Revolution, began with the intention of presenting a full picture of political persecution in Russia during the past twenty years, but the material was so overwhelming in quantity that it was decided to confine the book exclusively to material dealing with the persecution of the Anarchists. The Social-Revolutionists, the Social-Democrats, Maximalists, Social-Zionists, Tolstoyans, etc., all of whom have a similar tale to tell, must wait their turn. In view of the mass and complexity of the material, the author is to be congratulated on bringing such a difficult task to a successful conclusion, and the Berkman Fund and other groups which contributed to the cost of the publication on the magnificent use they have made of their meagre resources. At the same time the form of the book invites a word or two of criticism. The data and documents which give the volume its historical importance are preceded by a preliminary essay on “The Sources of the Russian Terror.” This essay extends to 338 pages, more than half the book! Now admittedly the documents need some form of presentation, and it is important to show that the terror is not a recent development which we can label “Stalinism,” but was inherent in the ideas and methods of Lenin himself. This fact the author demonstrates conclusively, mainly by the quotation of Lenin’s own words. But we cannot help feeling that this polemical argument would have been better as a separate volume; and that the data and documents which form the second part of the present work would have gained in impressiveness if they had been presented with a minimum of comment, something not much longer than the introductory essay on “Anarchists in the Revolution,” which does actually precede this second part. This purely formal criticism seems trivial when we pass to a consideration of the contents of the book, which are of a terrifying actuality. Both in extent and intensity the Russian Terror has exceeded any previous political tyranny of which we have historical record: it reduces the Terror which followed the French Revolution to insignificance and can only be matched by the exploits of Genghis Khan. At a conservative estimate the Russian Terror cost, in executions, epidemics and famine, from 20 to 22 million lives between the years 1917-34. The figures, as Maximoff says, numb one’s brain, and the actuality is perhaps only to be grasped by focussing on individual cases. But what is demonstrated, by a consideration of the general features of the Terror, is that the ultimate cause was an idea, held on to with blind fanaticism. This idea expressed itself in the phrase “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” which was innocent enough when first used by Marx, but which became fatal through the intervention of two political expedients – the identification of the proletariat with the Bolshevik Party, and the use of the State as an instrument of revolution. Expedients and compromises may have been necessary for the effective defeat of the reactionary forces; but there is no doubt whatsoever that what took place was a progressive brutalisation of Lenin’s own mind under the corrupting influence of the exercise of power. Some day, perhaps, we shall understand this process from a psychological point of view; meanwhile it has to be recorded as an historical tragedy, involving the lives of millions of innocent people. “Dictatorship leads to regression, to physical, social and moral decadence, toward slavery, toward complete, integral slavery, toward a sea of blood and an ocean of tears. It is natural, for dictatorship bases itself upon terror, upon the death penalty. But the death penalty, whoever uses it and wherever it is applied – on a large or small scale – results in moral corruption, brutalization, loss of human values, stultification of individuality, lack of respect for the rights of others and consequently lack of respect for civic liberties, which in turn sooner or later leads, with the inevitability of a natural law, to the complete loss of all rights and liberties, to slavery, to a latent or expressly manifested dictatorship of a power-greedy and egoistic minority.” Such is the lesson of the Russian Revolution.

It is impossible to review the second part of the volume in any detail. It consists of a year by year chronicle of arrests, persecutions and struggles of the Russian anarchists, together with letters from prison and exile. There are many important manifestoes and protests, extracts from newspapers and journals, and several “human documents” which rise to the heights of tragic pathos. Ciliga, in the book reviewed in the last number of War Commentary, [The Russian enigma, 1940] has paid a disinterested tribute to the nobility of the Anarchists he met in Russian prisons and concentration camps. There are heroes in all sections of the revolutionary struggle, but in Russia, as more recently in Spain, the martyrdom of our comrades is an undying inspiration to all those who still work for a true socialism based on freedom, equality and brotherhood.

H. R.

From a recent anonymous donation (thanks!)

From: War Commentary v.1, n.11 (September 1940) p.15.