At the close of the Communist trial, the judge at the Old Bailey summoned seven of his prisoners to choose between a six months’ sentence and the opinions expressed in this book. They are, if we must read this summons in its literal meaning, prohibited opinions on which the law has put its ban. If this were really our case, then the thesis which Trotsky maintains in these pages is established already. For we should have to admit that even before violence had been attempted, the mere appearance in our politics of a tiny revolutionary party has sufficed to frighten the ruling class out of its respect for the liberty of opinion on which democracy is founded. It needs no energetic exercise of the imagination to predict from this episode what would happen if the challenge grew to a formidable threat.
But the battle for freedom is not yet lost. It is precisely those of us who differ from Trotsky’s reading of our inevitable destiny who are bound in duty to welcome the appearance of this book. If it may come freely from the press, if it may be discussed, as it deserves to be, with equal freedom for assent or dissent, then, for the moment at least, the nightmare of this trial is dissipated. Of all parties in Great Britain, the Labour Party has the chief interest in demanding for this ruthless attack upon itself both liberty and attention. We can hold our faith in the democratic approach to Socialism as a reasoned conviction only if the opposite opinion may be argued in perfect liberty, and only then if it finds worthy and capable advocates. If the law forbids a man to draw from the study of history and the survey of contemporary politics the conclusion that force is the only adequate instrument for social change, in that moment our contrary opinion ceases to be a reasoned conviction and becomes an imposed dogma.
The opinion which Trotsky maintains has never been more brilliantly argued. Behind its wit and its logic there is the prestige of experience. The pamphleteer who tells us that if we mean to achieve Socialism we cannot escape civil war has himself conducted a civil war against terrific odds to a triumphant conclusion. It is obvious, moreover, that he has taken pains to equip himself for his task and has applied his versatile intellect to the study of our history and our contemporary life. He makes some mistakes , it is true, in his facts, but none of these really invalidate his argument.
His book is a slashing attack on our whole movement. We shall make a grave mistake if we allow its manner to blind us to the fact that he has a strong case to argue. He assails Left and Right with equal vehemence. Sometimes in his criticisms of persons he is arrogant and offensive; sometimes his wit is irresistible; sometimes (it seems to me) he assails things in our record and muddles in our thinking which deserve to be assailed. But the odds are that with these ruthless Russian methods he will produce in the minds of most English readers an effect which is far from his intention.
Trotsky is far too able a man not to realise that there are differences in the English and Russian national characters. He emphasizes again and again the lesson that history has made each of us what we are. Yet the more he displays his acquaintance with the external facts of our history, the less does he seem to understand us. His attitude to the religious beliefs of most of our readers is for me the test of his failure to understand us – and this I may say calmly, since I am myself an. agnostic. No Russian that I ever met, even when he had been long in England, ever grasped the fact that English religion with its long tradition of open discussion, the democratic form of its “free’ churches, its emphasis on conduct rather than ritual or belief, and its relative freedom from other worldliness, has literally nothing in common with the Eastern Church. I wonder, would Trotsky’s conviction that Protestant religion is necessarily a “bourgeois” creed which no worker can honestly profess survive a visit to a Dissenting chapel in a mining district? Has he ever read Bunyan, or glanced at the revolutionary history of Anabaptists  and Fifth Monarchy  men? What would he make of the queer disputes between the middle-class Freethinker Robert Owen (who hated class war) and the pioneers of English Trade Unionism, who clung with equal obstinacy to their Christianity and their belief in the class war?
One feels the same failure of a man from another world to understand us when Trotsky laughs at the idea that a Labour majority in Parliament will ever be allowed to do anything fundamental.
Assuredly it will be a tremendous adventure; certainly it will want will and courage. No sane man will deny the risks to which Trotsky points. But equally, I think, every man who realises how deeply the Parliamentary tradition and the instinct of obedience to the majority are graven on the English mind will admit that the adventure is worth attempting. Not only in Parliament, but in churches, Trade Unions, and even clubs, this respect for the majority has been inculcated on generations of Englishmen. What can a Russian know of that? What estimate can he make of the power of tradition in our older civilization? We should answer, in the last resort, that if he is right, if the propertied class will in the end defend its privileges by force, then we prefer to fight, as Cromwell fought, with the Parliament behind us, and the rights of a majority on our side.
But it is not the business of an introducer to enter into controversy with the author. The book with all its vitality and assurance is doubly valuable – as a revelation of the Russian mind, and a criticism of our English ways. It is the work of a shrewd and realistic intellect. It will not convert many of us to the Russian standpoint. But we shall fail to use it to the full unless we take it as a challenge that forces us to think out our position anew. Trotsky sees, as some of us do not, the difficulty of our unparalleled enterprise. He realizes that the tactics which will avail to transform an old society cannot be the tactics of an opportunist Liberalism. The book may confirm us in our resolve by all means to avoid civil war, but it is a formidable challenge to us to test our own sincerity, and to ask ourselves whether, with a will and a courage that equal the audacity of these Russian pioneers, we are moving with single minds towards the achievement of our goal.
1. Henry Noel Brailsford (1873-1958). A socialist writer who came to prominence as a journalist in the Daily News over the issue of women’s suffrage. He joined the ILP in 1907 and took a pacifist position in the First World War. He was editor of the ILP paper New Leader, from 1922-26 and as such was an opponent of MacDonald within the ILP. He was active in efforts to reunite the Second and Third Internationals and in the ILP campaign of 1926 entitled “Socialism in Our Time”.
2. He evidently misunderstands our electoral system. Again the life of the Independent Labour Party has been much longer than he supposes, and its membership is twice what he attributes to it. He seems at times to identify it with the Fabian Society. But such slips are of no importance. – H.N.B.
3. Puritan sect at the time of the English Revolution, which opposed infant baptism and emphasised congregational organization in opposition to government by the church hierarchy. The name came to be applied generally to the extreme left wing in religion and politics during the Civil War period.
4. A group of Puritans during the English Revolution who believed that the return of Christ and the establishment of the millenium was imminent. They engaged in risings in 1657 and 1661 against the respective governments existing at these dates.
Last updated on: 2.7.2007