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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2032

History knows her way

“The Party can never be mistaken,” said Rubashov. “You and I can make a mistake. Not the Party. The Party, comrade, is more than you and I and a thousand others like you and I. The Party is an embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history. History knows no scruples and no hesitation. Inert and unerring, she flows towards her goal. At every bend in her course she leaves the mud which she carries and the corpses of the drowned. History knows her way. She makes no mistakes. He who has not absolute faith in History does not belong in the Party’s ranks.”

Defective saints

His past was the movement, the Party; present and future, too, belonged to the Party, were inseparably bound up with its fate; but his past was identical with it. And it was this past that was suddenly put in question. The Party’s warm, breathing body appeared to him to be covered with sores—festering sores, bleeding stigmata. When and where in history had there ever been such defective saints? Whenever had a good cause been worse represented? If the Party embodied the will of history, then history itself was defective.

The great silent x of history

“Forgive my pompousness,” he went on, “but do you really believe the people are still behind you? It bears you, dumb and resigned, as it bears others in other countries, but there is no response in its depths. The masses have become deaf and dumb again, the great silent x of history, indifferent as the sea carrying the ships. Every passing light is reflected on its surface, but underneath is darkness and silence. A long time ago we stirred up the depths, but that is over. In other words”—he paused and put on his pince-nez—“in those days we made history; now you make politics. That’s the whole difference.”

The only rule of political ethics

“The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains the only rule of political ethics; anything else is just vague chatter and melts away between one’s fingers. . . .”

Two conceptions of human ethics

“There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality. Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can’t point out one. In times of need—and politics are chronically in a time of need—the rulers were always able to evoke ‘exceptional circumstances’, which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism. . . .”

Without umbilical cord

How old might this Gletkin be? Thirty-six or seven, at the most; he must have taken part in the Russian Civil War as a youth and seen the outbreak of the Russian Revolution as a mere boy. That was the generation which had started to think after the flood. It had no traditions, and no memories to bind it to the old, vanished world. It was a generation born without umbilical cord. . . . And yet it had right on its side. One must tear that umbilical cord, deny the last tie which bound one to the vain conceptions of honour and the hypocritical decency of the old world. Honour was to serve without vanity, without sparing oneself, and until the last consequence.

I plead guilty

“I plead guilty to not having understood the fatal compulsion behind the policy of the Government, and to have therefore held oppositional views. I plead guilty to following sentimental impulses, and in so doing to have been led into contradiction with historical necessity. I have lent my ear to the laments of the sacrificed, and thus become deaf to the arguments which proved the necessity to sacrifice them. I plead guilty to having rated the question of guilt and innocence higher than that of utility and harmfulness. Finally, I plead guilty to having placed the idea of man above the idea of mankind. . . .”

The cup of humiliation

He had believed that he had drunk the cup of humiliation to the dregs. Now he was to find that powerlessness had as many grades as power; that defeat could become as vertiginous as victory, and that is depths were bottomless.

The so-called opposition

What could he answer to that? That it would not in any case have led to serious results, if only for the reason that he, Rubashov, was too old and worn-out to act as consequentially as the Party traditions required, and as Gletkin would have done in his place? That the whole activity of the so-called opposition had been senile chatter, because the whole generation of the old guard was just as worn-out as himself? Worn by the years of illegal struggle, eaten by the damp of the prison walls, between which they had spent half their youth; spiritually sucked dry by the permanent nervous strain of holding down the physical fear, of which one never spoke, which each had to deal with alone—for years, for tens of years. Worn by the years of exile, the acid sharpness of factions within the Party, the unscrupulousness with which they were fought out; worn out by the endless defeats, and the demoralization of the final victory? Should he say that an active, organized opposition to No. 1’s dictatorship had never really existed; that it had all only been talk, impotent playing with fire, because this generation of the old guard had given all it had, had been squeezed out to the last drop, to the last spiritual calorie; and like the dead in the graveyard at Errancis, had only one thing left to hope for: to sleep and to wait until posterity did them justice.

No way back

Some were silenced by physical fear, like Hare-lip; some hoped to save their heads; others at least to save their wives or sons from the clutches of the Gletkins. The best of them kept silent in order to do a last service to the Party, by letting themselves be sacrificed as scapegoats—and, besides, even the best had each an Arlova on his conscience. They were too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves. There was no way back for them. Their exit from the stage happened strictly according to the rules of their strange game. The public expected no swan-songs of them. They had to act according to the text-book, and their part was the howling of wolves in the night. . . .

The running-amuck of pure reason

For in a struggle one must have both legs firmly planted on the earth. The Party taught one how to do it. The infinite was a politically suspect quantity, the “I” a suspect quality. The Party did not recognize its existence. The definition of the individual was: a multitude of one million divided by one million.
The Party denied the free will of the individual—and at the same time it exacted his willing self-sacrifice. It denied his capacity to choose between two alternatives—and at the same time it demanded that he should constantly choose the right one. It denied his power to distinguish good and evil—and at the same time it spoke pathetically of guilt and treachery. The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced—and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out.
For forty years he had lived strictly in accordance with the vows of his order, the Party. He had held to the rules of logical calculation. He had burnt the remains of the old, illogical morality from his consciousness with the aid of reason. He had turned away from the temptations of the silent partner, and had fought against the “oceanic sense” with all his might. And where had it landed him? Premises of unimpeachable truth had led to a result which was completely absurd; Ivanov’s and Gletkin’s irrefutable deductions had taken him straight into the weird and ghostly game of the public trial. Perhaps it was not suitable for a man to think every thought to its logical conclusion.
Rubashov stared through the bars of the window at the patch of blue above the machine-gun tower. Looking back over his past, it seemed to him now that for forty years he had been running amuck—the running-amuck of pure reason. Perhaps it did not suit man to be completely freed from old bonds, from the steadying brakes of “Thou shalt not” and “Thou mayst not,” and to be allowed to tear along straight towards the goal.

A mistake in the system

It was a mistake in the system; perhaps it lay in the precept which until now he had held to be uncontestable, in whose name he had sacrificed others and was himself being sacrificed: in the precept, that the end justifies the means. It was this sentence which had killed the great fraternity of the Revolution and made them all run amuck. What had he once written in his diary? “We have thrown overboard all conventions, our sole guiding principle is that of consequent logic; we are sailing without ethical ballast.”
Perhaps the heart of the evil lay there. Perhaps it did not suit mankind to sail without ballast. And perhaps reason alone was a defective compass, which led one on such a winding, twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist.
Perhaps now would come the time of great darkness.
Perhaps later. Much later, the new movement would arise—with new flags, a new spirit of knowing of both: of economic fatality and the “oceanic sense.” Perhaps the members of the new party will wear monks’ cowls, and preach that only purity of means can justify the ends. Perhaps they will teach that the tenet is wrong which says that a man is the quotient of one million divided by one million, and will introduce a new kind of arithmetic based on multiplication: on the joining of a million individuals to form a new entity which, no longer an amorphous mass, will develop a consciousness and an individuality of its own, with an “oceanic feeling” increased a millionfold, in unlimited yet self-contained space.

The darkness of night

Did there really exist any such goal for this wandering mankind? That was a question to which he would have liked an answer before it was too late. Moses had not been allowed to enter the land of promise either. But he had been allowed to see it, from the top of the mountain, spread at his feet. Thus, it was easy to die, with the visible certainty of one's goal before one's eyes. He, Nicolas Salmanovitch Rubashov, had not been taken to the top of a mountain; and wherever his eye looked, he saw nothing but desert and the darkness of night.

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