On the Thread of Time
“Horrors” and “War Crimes”
Battaglia Comunista, no. 10 of 1949
We are publishing this article written by the party in 1949 because, while it is rich with historical (“Yesterday”) and contemporary (“Today”) references, it perfectly expresses our position with regard to the horror stories that are being mobilized by today’s bourgeois propaganda networks to justify the war in Ukraine. Both Russia and its allies on the one hand, and the Western bloc on the other, accuse the other side of atrocities and horrific war crimes. The truth or otherwise of these stories is really neither here nor there. What truly matters is an understanding that capitalism means war and only the proletariat has the power to stop war. Then, as now, these horror stories are designed to disrupt “the whole process of the formation of the new historical consciousness in the proletarian vanguard” – the task of The Communist Party.
We only need to go back for a single generation to remember that in journalistic controversy and in discussions among “educated” people or in bourgeois drawing rooms, judgment on the great French Revolution of 1789 was still considered controversial. No one in the spheres of the well-educated still disputed its historico-social and political achievements, since there were no longer any parties or currents advocating absolutist restoration, claiming that the “conquests” achieved in the world on the basis of those immortal principles should be abolished. (Quite true, one thing that never failed to astound Benito Mussolini, when he was still a revolutionary in 1912, was that a Bourbon weekly, Il Vero Guelfo, was still being printed in Naples...).
Yet it was still controversial for posterity to judge and openly debate, at least in the eyes of the layman, the serious question of the horrors, the ferocious methods that the revolution used, in its innovative struggle and its unstoppable advance. Let go for liberty equality and fraternity, let go for the liberal and parliamentary regime and the rights of man and citizen, let go for the repression of absolute monarchies and of aristocratic and church privileges, but to achieve all this they should have thought about it and maybe then given it up rather than go to the heinous extremes of the Temple (1), to the legendary disembowelments of hairdressers – who had not yet discovered perming – on curly-haired duchesses (2).
The decisive social topic thus became the thriller, although at the time the expression wasn’t used, the fictional and colorful chronicle on these sensational contours of historical facts, the painting of horrors. If a not-so-foolish Italian had long since explained that in the political and historical process the end achieved must be considered far more important than the means employed, the descendants could only blush at such a cynical and immoral ancestor as Niccolò Machiavelli.
To wean all propagandas from this mania that revolves around “the gore argument” always appeared an impossible undertaking since it formed the very core of the popular diffusion of Christianity, and if the reactionaries first went for sentimental moves and pleading every indictment on the Widow (3) and the Terror, the radical democrats, the anti-clerical Freemasons found nothing better than to do than to counter-point to the Inquisition and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (4).
It was never possible to end this debate with an agreed-upon judgment: which of the two contenders was most cruel, who was gorier? There is always a rebuttal; not even Gandhi and Tolstoy get away with it. But the trouble is that the aforementioned layman does not realize that this is a futile undertaking and that, assuming it’s even possible to discriminate between the scams propounded and believed by one side and the other, it is by no means certain that it is convenient to opt against those who are on the side, in the past in the present and in the future, of the harshest means, and that the question doesn’t always lie elsewhere.
In the wars of a generation back, it was a contest on both sides to discover the dumdum bullets (5) in the flesh of their wounded. The bullets allowed by the international conventions of the civilized capitalist world had to be conical and come out of rifled barrels, they could not be designed to produce infection or gruesome devastation of tissue – in short, they had to be made to legally send someone else to the other world. Back then there was still no talk about combat planes, toxic gases, atomic bombs and similar jokes.
The highlight of the polemical battle parallel to that of the cannons in the 1914 war was around the severed hands of Belgian children (6) and the atrocities of the Tsar’s Cossack hordes, which took no prisoners.
The despicable spectacle of the Kravchenko (7) trial would be enough to establish that we are still at the same point and that compact propaganda mobilizations point to the idiotic capital of horrors. The Anglo-Saxons specially are so convinced that this way they put a quick end to two world massacres that they’re not willing to let up. Mountains of printed paper are spilled over the world, and they also constitute good business because if books and journals on historical and social science are indigestible or in small popular demand, the public instead throws itself tremendously “incannarutito” (i.e., like the wolverine on the best delicacies) on the pages that explain the laws of the science of history through skilful anatomical descriptions on third degree interrogations based on ripped out nails, obscene mutilation and vivisection of human guinea pigs.
The campaign against the Russian Revolution has been waged for decades with these despicable inventions, and the same accusations have bounced filthily in the last war from one front to another. Half the world swears that the grave-diggers in Katyn (8) were Germans, half believes them to be Russians. 90% of this sort of literature is just impressionistic accounts about Russia and war memoirs and the slurry of borderline fictional autobiographies of the maniacal (and entirely passive) persecuters of Nazi and Stalinist policies.
Many of these infamies may very well be true, whoever they are attributed to, and it is impossible to get to the bottom of these investigations. But, more than impossible, it’s useless, because recounting them can never serve anything besides the shady ends of propaganda organizations.
The Stalinists struggle poorly against the skillful jurisprudence of Kravchenko’s book and the whole movement of that nature, after their own gawking in their propaganda method employed by the same capitalist establishment against Nazism and Fascism. They will be victims of these filthy propaganda tricks and rightly so because they have been its accomplices.
They have thus disrupted the whole proceeding of the formation of the new historical consciousness in the proletarian vanguard. They foolishly accept the discussion of whether there is more freedom in Russia than there was in Germany under Hitler or there is today in America. They are no longer up to the criticism and condemnation of bourgeois freedom, that police officers and sellouts are well free to choose. They can’t just say that communists, as far as they’re concerned, choose revolutionary dictatorship, since as far as they are concerned they have traded and exchanged everything, they too have cheated and speculated with the imbecilic slogan of the struggle for freedom tout court, and today it’s just the proverbial snake that bites the charlatan.
It may make an impression that the German opposition communist Heinz Neumann (9), a generous and loyal fighter of the proletariat, ended up silently repressed and his partner (10) was dribbled between the Soviet and Nazi police as were so many other unhappy people, poor human undertow of the sway of great power politics. But reading the poor widow’s account does not make one think about and study the more serious historical problems for the conduct of the proletarian struggle. Why was it that Russian tactics in Italy in both 1923 and 1943 were all in the style of “fight for freedom, choose freedom, form blocs with liberals of every hue”? - and why, on the other hand, in Germany when Neumann wanted to form a bloc of all anti-fascists against Hitler, the united front for freedom, he was disavowed? - and why again after 1941 did they go back to the cry of the crusade for freedom and the anti-Nazi united front with all the democrats of the world?
These are far weightier questions than whether the individual militant Neumann was kept in a hotel, a prison or a gas chamber, however chilling these images may be.
These are questions that have relevance to the sabotage and defeatism of all the resources of world revolution.
For only communists who have not at every turn chosen something in the enemy camp, who regard bourgeois freedom and bourgeois oppression as the same thing in every situation, can today have the right to spit in the face of the Kravchenkos and the factory that produces them, hidden like the ones that produce atomic bombs in the deserts of New Mexico and Dakota.
1. The prison in which the royal family was held from 1792.
2. This is a reference to the decapitation of Princesse de Lamballe, friend of Marie Antoinette. Lurid but unsubstantiated reports stated that her severed head was taken to a hairdresser in order to restore her recognizable hairstyle.
3. Marie Antoinette was known as Widow Capet after Louis XVI was executed.
4. The massacre of Huguenots (Protestants) instigated by the French government in 1572.
5. Bullets that expand on impact, causing greater damage. First banned by the Hague Conventions of 1899.
6. Stories of atrocities in Belgium, real or alleged, were used to stir anti-German sentiment.
7. Victor Kravchenko, the noted Soviet defector to the US and writer of I Choose Freedom, a classic in the genre of sentimental bourgeois defector memoirs. In 1949 Kravchenko sued the French Communist Party for libel. The case was dubbed “The Trial of the Century”.
8. A reference to the massacre of Polish officers, which the Germans and Russians accused each other of committing.
9. Neumann was arrested April 27, 1937 as part of Stalin’s campaign against German communists and sentenced to death by the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union on November 26, 1937. He was shot the same day.
10. Margarete Buber-Neumann‘s autobiography, As Prisoner of Hitler and Stalin, was published in 1949.