From Fourth International, Vol.3 No.7, July 1942, pp.208-211.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Every regime rests on certain real and ideological foundations. The three great pillars of Czarist Russia were orthodoxy, autocracy and nationalism. Of these Stalin has established a new form of aristocracy—the Kremlin bureaucracy. He has replaced the old state-religion orthodoxy by a peculiar—because unstable and contradictory—state orthodoxy called Stalinism. And the Kremlin is doing its best to reestablish old-style nationalism.
Commenting on Stalin’s July 3, 1941 speech, which appealed to the feudal Russian tradition of the defeat of Napoleon, the October 1941 Fourth International noted that the name of the Soviet historian, Eugene Tarle, missing since the purges of 1936, had reappeared in the Soviet press. “Perhaps,” said Fourth International, “Tarle will now have to rewrite his writings on the Napoleonic epoch!” And so it is indeed.
Tarle was a renowned authority on the Napoleonic epoch. His Bonaparte was published here some years ago and was justly considered a study in the classic Marxist tradition. But that was sufficient to bring it into conflict with the needs of the Kremlin. He has now unpurged himself by meeting the demands of Stalinist autocracy and orthodoxy (as of today) by his new book on the Napoleonic invasion of 1812.  Stalin finds it necessary to recast history in order to set up once again the pillar of nationalism. Tarle writes his present book in the cause of this new “tradition.”
This is not the first time that new regimes bent on serving their own ends have rewritten history. The development of capitalism provides innumerable instances. There is, for example, the difference between the defeated agrarian and the victorious bourgeois interpretation of the critical period in American history culminating in the adoption of the much-haloed Constitution. Similarly the French revolution was much revised by capitalist historians after Thermidor and the Napoleonic period. American history books painted in entirely different colors the Civil War and Reconstruction after the reconciliation between the ruling classes of the two sections, as though the struggle had been an unfortunate misunderstanding.
But nowhere in history has there been so stupendous an attempt to pervert and distort the reality of the past as in the Russia of the Stalinist bureaucracy. This reactionary parasite tries to tear out by the roots from the living memories of men their glowing recollections of yesterday. With the aid of hirelings in all lands, they have tried to make black appear white and white black. Stalin did not help his scribblers too well, because in the devious twists and turns of his opportunist politics, he was again and again forced to call white what he had denounced as black but yesterday. These suddenly precipitated reversals merely reflected the instability of a regime which was attempting to retain the stamp of Lenin and the proletarian revolution while undermining and casting overboard the doctrines and policies of the revolution.
The revision of the history of the Russian revolution was necessitated the moment the Stalinist clique usurped power. It was necessitated by the so-called theory of socialism in one country, used by Stalin to strangle everything that might remind one of the international character of the Russian revolution. It became the aim of Stalinism to dam the revolution and to divert it solely into national channels. But the proletarian revolution could not possibly reach its socialist goal within national boundaries. Hence the Stalinist clique brought about the steady degeneration of the revolution of Lenin and Trotsky. The Kremlin dictator tried to substitute new national foundations for the October revolution, but his failure to do so is attested by the fact that he was forced to pass over the entire period of the revolution and to go further back in history for his national traditions. He was forced to go back to the epoch of the founding of the nation, when the proletariat did not even exist.
Such was Stalin’s ideological preparation of the Russian proletariat for the war against fascism. Indeed how could it have been otherwise? Could Stalin have appealed to the traditions of the Civil War and the struggles against world capitalist intervention? But they were led by the men murdered by the bureaucracy! Far better for Stalin to forget “Marshal Forward” (Bluecher) and his fight against the Cossack Hetman Dutov; or Antonov-Ovseyenko in the Don defeating the forces of Kornilov; Yakir leading the Chinese labor corps against the Rumanians in Bessarabia; Putna at Kazan. It would stick in Stalin’s throat to be reminded of the real turning-point of the Civil War when Tukhachevsky so brilliantly retook Simbirsk. Above all let nobody even whisper the name of the creator of the Red Army and its victories, L.D. Trotsky. The tradition of these men is sealed to Stalin by their blood.
Instead the Kremlin reaction attempts an analogy with Czarist Russia: Kutuzov and his master, Czar Alexander, are praised for preserving the Russian nation; and not only the Russian nation, for by their defeat of Napoleon, that arch-fiend, they helped to preserve all the nations of Europe.
The attitude of Marxists towards the Napoleonic wars has always been quite clear. Bonaparte usurped the power of the French revolution as the aftermath of the Thermidorian reaction against the revolution. But he was also the son of the revolution in the sense that he was the arch-foe of the previous feudal ruling class headed by the Bourbons. Napoleon had no intention to restore the past, to restore serfdom. On the contrary, his rule rested on the bourgeoisie and he epitomized the fact that society now had a new ruling class, the capitalists. The wars against the rest of Europe (with the exception of England) were wars of conquest to strengthen the French bourgeoisie but, by the same token, they were wars of defense against the coalition of feudal nations attempting to restore the Bourbons and feudalism in France. Through the Napoleonic wars, the French revolution struck a deathblow at feudalism everywhere in Europe. Serfdom remained longest in Russia precisely because Napoleon failed to conquer there. Thus, while Marxists view the role of Napoleon as reactionary inside France, his role outside was progressive. The serfs everywhere hailed the coming of the French armies because it meant their liberation. This, as much as anything else, aided Napoleon in his victories. The armies of his enemies were already undermined wherever they included serfs.
No Marxist would have dreamed of defending Czarism, that system called by Lenin the “prison of the nations,” against even the degenerated form of the French revolution personified in Bonaparte. That this attitude was correct is clear when one considers the effects of the defeat of Napoleon. Europe was thrown into the blackest reaction, into the dark period of the Holy Alliance founded by the Czar. Italian unity as a nation was postponed until 1870, since Italy was redivided and much of it handed back to Austria. German unity was also forfeited to a much later date. Poland was once again partitioned, the Czar getting the lion’s share. The League of Nations of that period (the Holy Alliance) meant the league of the victorious feudal monarchs against the peoples of Europe. But above all the solution of serfdom in Russia was postponed. The fear of serf uprisings as Napoleon approached the Russian interior had led Alexander to practically promise emancipation—after the war! Instead of emancipation the Czar founded the infamous military colonies.
Tarle understood the Marxist attitude to Napoleon very well, as is proved by his earlier work on Bonaparte. His new book, however, makes a complete about-face, condemns Napoleon and defends Kutuzov and the Czar. The war on the side of Russia is called a war for national liberation, no less! Worse still, Tarle falsely attributes a like view to Lenin. We await at some future time Tarle’s explanation for Lenin’s attitude in the first World War. Just why was Lenin no longer interested in the Russian “nation” and its preservation? Why did he actually raise the slogan of revolutionary defeatism in order to bring about the downfall of Czarism and the opportunity for the proletariat to take power ? Tarle will find it most difficult to answer because he places the nation above the class in his new volume. In this he merely carries out the orders of Stalin.
Let us quote from Tarle’s first book, Bonaparte, to show how clearly he understood the epoch of the Napoleonic wars. He wrote:
“In the realm of foreign policy, Napoleon’s imperialistic tendencies, dictated by the interests of the French bourgeoisie, brought him into conflict with the rotting, actively decomposing semi-feudal world of Europe ...”
The impact of the French revolution is shown again and again, even though refracted through the person of Napoleon.
“He destroyed all traces of feudal laws in conquered Italy, and deprived the churches and monasteries of the right to exact extortions.”
Two quotations will help establish the attitude of the French quite clearly.
“Yes, and how could the French peasant army forget that its Emperor had issued out of revolutionary ranks, when it witnessed with its own eyes that serfs had ceased being serfs and that the nobility no longer dared humiliate them without fear of reprisal, as was the rule in the days of the Bourbons. Instinctively, they knew that outside the borders of France, in the Europe he was conquering, their leader was following the aims of revolution, rather than counter-revolution.”
How did the workers of Paris feel?
“Immediately before the arrival of the news of Marengo, the workers of Paris, of all France, indeed of all Europe, were asking themselves the one question uppermost in their minds: would the benefits of the revolution be maintained, or would they perish? If Bonaparte were killed or taken prisoner, or if his army were crushed by the enemy, one might expect the prompt landing of the emigres and the English in the Vendée, a campaign against Paris, an upheaval in the capital, the invasion of France from the east by the Austrians and other interventionists, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and the resurrection of the old feudal order.”
But this is before the period of Napoleon’s Russian invasion, one might say. Very well. Let us quote Tarle’s earlier book on this invasion. Here is an incidental remark characterizing Czar Alexander:
“Alexander had far more reason to fear Napoleon as the destroyer of the feudal order, but he knew that the transformation of France into an autocratic empire was a circumstance that undermined Napoleon’s moral prestige both in France, and in the rest of Europe, among certain sections of middle-class society—among those human beings for whom the Revolution still preserved a certain fascination. This liberal censure of Napoleonic autocracy by the despotic master of an empire in which feudal serfdom still obtained, is one of the ironies of history.”
Best of all we have Tarle’s earlier remarks on “national” war:
“It would not be amiss here to say something on the so-called Russian ‘national’ war of 1812. Never did Napoleon, or his marshals, speak of the war of 1812 as a ‘national’ war, in the same sense as they spoke of the Spanish guerrilla war as a ‘national’ war. Nor could they compare the two phenomena ... There was not a single national mass revolt against the French, neither then nor after Napoleon’s entry into Moscow. Indeed there were occurrences of quite a contrary nature, as when the peasants of Smolensk complained to the French authorities that their master, the landowner Engelhardt, had been guilty of betraying the French.”
Of the so-called guerrilla warfare:
“The heads of the militia—Figner, Davidov, Seslavin, Kudashev, Vodbolsky—were officers of the regular Russian army who had been authorized to organize detachments of volunteers (from among the soldiers of the regular army and willing newcomers) ... The peasants as a group took no part in these activities ... It is clear that if the Spanish guerrilla warfare might justifiably be called a national war, it would be impossible to apply this term to any Russian movement in the year 1812.”
How differently the same matter is presented in the new book! We are told now:
“Only by resisting this aggression could Russia preserve her economic and political independence. Only by fighting could she save herself from future dismemberment and the ruin incurred through the Continental Blockade ... In the circumstances, the War of 1812 was a struggle for survival in the full sense of the word—a defensive struggle against the onslaughts of the imperialist vulture. This is what gave the war its peculiarly national character and impelled the Russian people to wage it with such heroic fortitude.”
The attempt to distort Lenin’s words—which are not quoted—to give the new coloration appears in this fashion:
“What then was the historical significance of the War of 1812? Lenin gives a clear answer to this question. In his view, the wars of the French Revolution, waged against interventionists in defense of revolutionary achievements, were, under the Directory and Napoleon, transformed into definitely aggressive wars of conquest; these aggressive, plundering, imperialist wars of Napoleon begot in their turn the movement of national liberation in the Europe he had subjugated; henceforth the wars of the European peoples against Napoleon became wars of national liberation. The War of 1812 was the most typical of these imperialist wars; Lenin’s term can be applied to it aptly and convincingly.”
The whole catch in this phraseology lies in the “application” to Russia. Napoleon helped to liberate the serfs and smash feudalism in Europe. The result was to lift up the middle class, the class on which Napoleon relied. But this class in turn acted to free the nation from the foreign yoke. This was true particularly of Germany and Italy. But it was absolutely untrue concerning Russia, which became the dominant force in the European alliance against France.
Tarle again and again refers in his earlier book to the fact that Napoleon could have saved himself in Russia by declaring the freedom of the serfs, as he had in Poland. But he refused to do so. This apparent enigma is due to the simple fact that Napoleon was not interested in the peasants, but in the middle class. In Napoleon’s view the organization of society must depend on the authority of the middle class or, where no such class existed, the feudal nobility. The latter was the case in Russia. No middle class existed powerful enough to take over the reins of government from the Czar. Hence Napoleon felt forced to seek an eventual peace settlement with the Czar, and, holding that perspective, he would not free the serfs and undermine Czarism. Until the end, however, the Russian peasants hoped Napoleon would free them, as he had freed the serfs of Poland. That is why they betrayed the landowner Engelhardt to the French.
But it is necessary now to set up 1812 as an example of national patriotism for the Russian workers and peasants, in the eyes of Stalin. So Tarle tells us something new—and false:
“The morale of the people gained enormously. Not fear but anger was the dominant sentiment. Witnesses testify that in this terrible moment (the march on Moscow) all classes merged in one common emotion. Better death than submission to the invading ravisher! Peasants, lower bourgeoisie, merchants, nobility—all vied with one another in their eagerness to fight Napoleon to the death.”
Kutuzov, the cruel landowner, is now pictured anew:
“He will be remembered as the genuine representative of the Russian people in the most terrible moment of Russia’s existence.”
Tarle must “correct” the impression he gave us in his earlier book. Hence he now says: “the same peasants met Napoleon as a fierce enemy, fighting with all their strength, as no other peasants had fought him except those of Spain.” Then we have this travesty on the feudal peasants and serfs who formed 95 per cent of the Russian population:
“For the Russian peasants, the defense of Russia from the invading enemy was a defense of their lives, their families, their property.”
Tarle had told us in his earlier book of the many peasant revolts during the invasion, even among recruits. He must now explain this away.
“In 1812 now in one place, now in another, the peasants rose against the landowners, as they did before and after. However, the presence of the enemy army did not strengthen but weakened the anti-landowner movement. The ruthless enemy deflected the peasants’ attention from the landowners. The threat that hung over Russia, the enslavement of the entire Russian nation by the alien conqueror, became the first consideration.”
Thus we see the Stalinist idea projected back in history that the nation is above the class, above all classes. Even bourgeois historians give the lie to this falsity. The fact is that the Czarist government in 1812 refused to permit the arming of the peasants, fearing quite correctly that the arms would be turned against the oppressors at home. The government went so far as to order the disarming of the peasant militias that had been in existence for some time. The idea of organizing peasant guerrillas was frowned upon. The Russian army itself experienced mass desertions. Tarle is forced to admit that bad as conditions were in the French army, they were infinitely worse in the Russian army. No wonder the army of Kutuzov dwindled almost as rapidly as that of Napoleon! Yet Tarle says:
“The guerrilla movement which began immediately after Borodino, achieved its tremendous success only through the active, voluntary and zealous assistance of the Russian peasantry ... The national character of the war was at once revealed in organized forms — in the army. In Spain the national war assumed quite other forms because in that country much time passed before military units could be organized.”
The importance of Tarle’s book lies not in Tarle himself, or in his descent into falsification of history. It lies in the light it throws on Stalinism. The present war is being fought under the leadership that has betrayed the Russian revolution. This leadership cannot possibly advance the revolutionary ideas that might lift not only the Russians but the Germans to heights of revolutionary fervor that would undermine Hitler’s armies. Stalin speaks of the socialist fatherland, but his emphasis is on the idea of a national fatherland. Lenin and Trotsky also defended the socialist fatherland, but their entire emphasis was on the revolutionary internationalist methods by which and by which alone the Russian revolution could be saved. Since Stalin cannot and dares not appeal to the German soldiers in terms of socialist revolution, he must substitute nationalism instead. The German soldiers have committed the heinous crime of obeying their masters and invading Russia. Stalin denounces them as lower than human, as completely bestial beings that must be completely destroyed. But the Russian workers and peasants are fighting so enthusiastically not for the national fatherland in the abstract but for the fatherland that embodies the conquests of the October revolution, despite its Stalinist degeneration. What if there does come a time of fraternization between the Germans and the Russians? Then woe betide both Hitler and Stalin. The October revolution will once more come into its own.
1. Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia – 1812, by Eugene Tarle. Oxford University Press, 1942. $3.50.
Last updated: 24.12.2005