Chapter 14

Submitted by Reddebrek on January 27, 2015

“IMAGINE Zvereva face-to-face with Kass, a puppet in a goatee, shitting in his pants, stinking of treachery – of every imaginable kind of treachery- like a dung heap smells of crap! And behind them the chubby shadow of Bobrov, self-satisfied and satisfied with us. We pay him well. The idea that Zvereva would probably be hanged from the same limb as us is hardly any consolation, you see. I don’t give a damn about bad company beyond the grave; I know that the gallows has a way of making quite suitable and perfectly historical heroes out of rather insipid spawn. But that female, under any regime, will simper in front of mirrors, have her own car, and put caviar on her white bread when the stokers down at the Great Works are getting their special milk ration only on paper. I myself am ashamed to speak in front of them, understand, when I see their bony faces and sunken cheeks. Myself, I eat at the Executive table, and then go make them beautiful speeches. `Gotta hold on, comrades! Hold on, hold on, hold on!` They know it as well as I do; but they’re starving.
“I tell you, these Zverevas will make themselves indispensable under any regime until man is completely transformed. We’re having a good crack at it, it’s true, assuming we win. Can’t you hear her purring, one well-shod pad on the running board of the Renault:
`The speaker from the Central Committee spoke so well! These four hours went by like nothing. Comrade Artem has a great future ahead of him.` Have you noticed the flair she has for always being on the stronger side? She’s never been seen voting with a minority. When difficult questions come up, she isn’t seen. But as soon as a more or less stable majority has been formed, you discover that she was in it the day before, that she’s one of the oldest of the old, well within the line. When I think about it, I feel like spitting: the same effect as the lousy plugs we used to chew on board the ships of the Blue Star Line…
“You see, old pal, those types infallibly land on their feet. If the Republic holds out, Zvereva will bury us all. We’ll end up tripping over some insoluble problem and falling on our faces, assuming nothing worse happens to us. We’ll say stupid things, we’ll do them! You are capable of getting yourself killed to set an example. Me, I’m capable of telling the most authoritative speaker of the most influential majority of the C.C. to go take a walk. I’m capable of voting alone, against! – So that, in the long run, the common lot will fall to us, it’s in the nature of things, it’s even good. Our type is necessary: we are not negligible. But your Zvereva will outlive us, old pal.
“Bobrov too. Or his young. Kaas, perhaps. For after all they can’t shoot that bastard now. He’s needed. He’s precious. He has become a factor in our interior defence system. The best workers’ battalion can be sacrificed in a fourth-rate operation at the front; Kaas cannot be sacrificed! All these vermin whom we are using, whom we are making work for us, who are necessary to us, who carry out a million tasks with us, necessary ones, I know – won’t they end up by devouring us? Aren’t they gnawing away at us as they obey us?”
Kirk stooped talking. He had before him the dry face of Osipov, who was leaning back against a tree trunk. In the distance the countryside was emerging from the mist.
“Devoured or not,” said Osipov, “the important thing is to make ourselves useful: to do what must be done. In that sense, no one can harm us. It is already an achievement that these vermin, the Bobrovs and Kaases, are in our service. Their natural destination is basically to serve the wealthy classes. Today they serve us. Afterward, we will try to rid the earth of them; first, let’s win. All weapons are good. Don’t take me literally: all weapons are not good at every moment. All means do not lead to an end; an end demands specific means; the choice of weapons depends on the objective of the struggle. “Zvereva gets on your nerves too much, my friend. She’s not that important. Somebody’s got to compile dossiers, go through denunciations, interrogate people like Kaas. Who should it be, if not her? Beings of another stamp choose different tasks. We don’t have many men. We are a few handfuls. Millions of men, the mightiest masses ever, are behind us – and there are only a few of us, mortal men, susceptible to influenza, susceptible to fits of conscience (much more serious, that, watch out for that one, no laugh). The Party is becoming contaminated you say? It’s inevitable. Remember the entrance of the anarchists into Ekaterinoslav? They were carrying a big black banner with these words: `No Poison Is More Deadly Than Power!` that’s pretty true. It’s also a poison we need. They’ve used it against us for time immemorial without knowing it’s a poison. We know it. We want to suppress it. That’s progress. Speaking of the anarchists, behind the banner rode Popov on horseback surrounded by his bodyguards, a dictator like any other, a dictator in spite of himself, missing all the cues in his part.
“…In the long run we’ll see. Not you or me, of course: the working class. I’m optimistic for the long run; as for the present, I have my doubts, I’m even rather pessimistic. I’m not sure we’ll survive the winter. But I’m certain we have time, a half century, a century perhaps. The mechanism of the world is exposed; it’s easy to see how it turns. That is our strength. We are pushing in the right direction. Perhaps we’ll be swept away; that direction will be no less the right one for it.
“Our mistake is in thinking too much about ourselves. We say I, me, every minute. We have that mythology of the ego in our blood; it’s not our fault. We haven’t yet discovered what the new place of the individual is in the age of the masses. A place which is certainly very great and almost insignificant at the same time. On this point of the front, from these trees to that cottage over there, we three, you, that fellow sleeping there, and I, can make the two hundred men dug into this trench hold out a few more days – and those few days could be enough to save the future and this point of the front could be just the place where the victory is decided. Thus, we are great, we count. I think of the places where I have held on in my life: on ’05 at the underground print shop, in ’07 in the combat organisation, then in prison; then on the Irtysh where we were only five, in exile, with Sonia, who was losing her mind – we had to hold on to our reason and our strength, not lose all hope. That was the hardest. Sometimes on summer nights we would go out onto the steppe and light bonfires, which were strange holidays for us; I used to jump across the fire with the secret desire of falling into an abyss. I kept my reason, you see, it still works. Then- the Great Works in ’17, what days those were, brother! Prodigious days! Where were you? At La Chaux-de-fonds? Where’s that? Oh. – Then the inner-party struggles, for or against the insurrection; there are times when everything depends on voting a resolution in a committee, for if you let the occasion slip by, the enemy won’t let it slip by. And since committees depend on organisations, everything depends on each of us, you have to fight for every conviction…”
“That, Osipov, is why there are good organisers who juggle with votes and imagine they are doing a great service to the Revolution when they have put together a fake majority on paper…”
“Let ‘em do it. You can fool one man, one hundred men, for a time with lots of printed paper, and by blinding yourself; you can’t fool classes locked in struggle; you can’t force events like forcing a door. You see that each of us serves, that he is great. We, too, are great. I can’t see your face in the dark, but I know you’re not smiling. Yes, you’re great too, in spite of your haemorrhoids, your doubts, your pointless rebellions. You hold down your corner, you’ll hold on as long as you can… But, my friend, if we weren’t here, this morning, the Committee would have sent others who would have done the job just as well. If I hadn’t been the prison librarian, the politicals would have found another, wouldn’t they? We are not necessary. Think of those who have died: Sacha, Bokin, Vlassov, Gregor, Fugger, just among us, just in one year. Yet we’re holding on without them. Among the men sleeping there, several are perhaps nearly as valuable as we and could replace us. And if the working class lacks men, if, when the time comes, the man who is needed doesn’t spring up at the head of the masses, understand! Incarnating the millions who are hesitating, feeling their way, keeping quiet, if that man doesn’t spring up, if those men don’t spring up in the necessary numbers, it’s because the proletariat is not ripe enough to conquer. Let them go back down into the mines that belong to others, then. Let them take up the harness again, let them get drunk, let them fight for others. We’ll either be dead or we’ll continue. We’ll know tomorrow or the day after if things must go that way.
“Kirk, the question is that of the proletariat. As it goes, so goes the Party, so goes the Revolution. We’re pretty solid for the moment. I have confidence in the workers’ grip.”
“Me, not so much. If you called a real vote in the Great Works without checking on who raised his hand, without them feeling we have the upper hand and the resolve to pass over, what a mess that would be!”
“It’s therefore necessary no to call them to vote. They know that they’re hungry and that they’re worn out. We know that the best among them have left. We are at a time when votes are no longer appropriate. Do people vote on a ship which is taking on water? They pump. And the captain must crack the head of any man who cries `Every man for himself` because he wants to live, too, like everyone else. The Great Works just gave another forty-eight men for the special mobilisation in the south. That’s more than a vote.”
“We eat better, that’s true. Sometimes I feel ashamed of it, too. What do you want? It’s the law of armies that those in command eat better and are less exposed. Our privileges are rather modest, admit it. Do you have a spare pair of boots?…”
“No, but Zvereva with her car glued to her arse, has a closetful. The Zverevas were behind the decision to divide up the stock of the Select among the female activists holding the highest positions, dammit… while half the female workers at the Wahl Factory go barefoot…”
“I tell you our commanders are still worth more than all the others. A question of human material. After all, let the pigs get fat off the backs of the working class, just as long as it holds out. The working class has more time than the pigs. It will deal with them quite easily when it has conquered half of Europe – which we need to keep from suffocating…”
Someone stirred in the half-darkness where the shapes of trees were beginning to take form. Wisps of fog marked the bed of a river. “And that guy sleeping there,” said Kirk, “another faceless, mindless man, an X, Y, or Z, the type who gets lost on a street corner. You should have heard him the other night; Goldin asks him: `After all, what does it mean to make revolution?` and our Antonov answers, without a moment’s reflection, like an automat returning your money when it’s out of candy: `Carrying out the tasks assigned to me by the Central Committee.` Ha! That’s what it’s all about for him: memos, instructions - `order for Comrade Antonov to nationalise the Titov Manufacturing Company.` without which he’d probably walk right by the place without even thinking of it! What if those orders became stupid? What if somebody got hold of the great seal of the C.C. and no one noticed it right away?”
“Your suppositions go far. I’m glad the battalion can’t hear you. You yourself would arrest the man who formulated them out loud in front of these men. Antonov isn’t wrong. He’s a voice. He doesn’t know how to think by himself, but he knows very well what the Party thinks. He’s worth more than Goldin, who thinks too much, thinks only by himself, gets high on his thoughts and tries to comprehend, rediscover, and reinvent the world because he’s a poet, because in the end he’s nothing but a romantic muddlehead and rather dangerous to have around when safety depends on order, method, and cohesion. The cohesion of a class, even in error, can be stronger than the isolation of a few men, even with the highest degree of clear-sightedness – provided the error is not one of principle. History has not forged nor men invented a better instrument for struggle than organisation; you know that as well as I do. But there is no weapon that doesn’t get rusty, no instrument that doesn’t bend one fine day. Whoever lives will see. If the proletariat has sufficient resources within itself – and it will have them, I will answer for that, as soon as we’re on the banks of the Rhone instead of being on the banks of the Narva – neither the cream-skinners nor the adventurers will be able to outflank it. If it’s not yet able to pick up the world on its shoulders and carry it away, is it by disdaining its best weapon that it will be saved from a Bonaparte? And then, old friend, the Bonapartes did their job well for the bourgeoisie. Who knows if the proletariat won’t need them?”
Osipov seemed to take fright at what he had just said. His hand, a shadowy hand, moved through the opaque air seeking a dead branch which was hanging and snatched it. The branch snapped. Then he went on, with a calm little laugh.
“One should not, even in thought, cling to rotten branches. I would only accept a Bonaparte in the firm intention of shooting him one day in recompense for services rendered. Because…”
They both remained silent for a long moment. A vast rural landscape, bristling in the near distance with anti-cavalry spikes, was taking shape around them.
“Because,” Kirk finished, “we haven’t come to start the same old story all over again. Or it wouldn’t be worth it, no… It would be better, for the Revolution, to perish and leave a clear memory. Blood? Blood is never completely lost.”
Osipov was practically shouting, even though his voice remained low:
“No, no, no, no! Get rid of those ideas, comrade. They’ve been beaten into us with billy clubs, I mean with defeats. No beautiful suicides, above all! They were invented by literary folk, who don’t commit suicide either beautifully or any other way. A philosophy of the whipped. No more of that! We’re here to stay, by God! To hold on, to work, to organise, to use everything to the limit including dung. Dung is also necessary. And then if we break our necks it will be something great, I grant you that, on the condition that we strike our pose before history with epic grandeur, et cetera. To live, that’s what the flesh-and-blood working class wants, that great collection of hungry people behind us whom we seem to be leading and who in reality are pushing us forward. Whenever there is a choice – give up or continue – they continue. Let’s continue, let’s get into the habit of living.”
All of a sudden the sun came up. A rooster crowed. The white clouds opened up, magical waves of gold rippled through the pale grass. Osipov was sitting at the foot of an apple tree. Kirk picked a green apple off the ground, took a bite, and tossed it into the distance with a side-arm twist learned in his twelfth year.
“Right!” he cried. “Let’s get into the habit of living. A good habit, brother. Ah!”
He felt like frolicking around the green like a colt. Osipov was smoking, eyes off in the distance, lips half open in a smile which gave the tortured oval of his face an almost childlike appearance. Had it not been for their uniforms and the undefinable weight of the years somewhere behind their thoughts, the two men might have thought they had returned momentarily to that borderland between childhood and adolescence where life is new with each morning.
“I think,” murmured Osipov, “that I’m about to be appointed to the Special commission.”
“My friend, I’ve got a beautiful case for you. A whole factory stolen – land, buildings, machinery, twenty-seven workers (none of them worth much of anything), including an assistant manager! I just discovered the key to the mystery, imagine. It wasn’t nationalised because it wasn’t under any administration. Just disappeared, what!”
The sleeper lying near them shook his covers. Antonov’s ruddy square face, planted with rust-coloured whiskers, appeared illuminated by a warm blue gaze. A hundred yards away, men were coming out of the trenches. A famished-looking soldier dressed in a shapeless tunic, whose walk seemed lopsided under the weight of the heavy wooden-holstered pistol slapping his hip, made his way toward the three envoys from the Committees. An oversized cap covered his narrow head. He might have been only a kid, even though he was as wrinkled as certain old peasants. “There’s Parfenov, the battalion commissar,” said Antonov. “A little guy from the Wildborg Printshop.” Osipov brought him up to date in a few words: “No relief for a week.” (He should have said two.) “No clothes or ammunition for four or five days. Can you hold?” The ageless little man had a slightly crooked, pointed nose, hollow cheeks in which the bones seemed about to push through, and parchment-like lips.
“We’ll try,” he said.
In front of the men, who were assembled on the edge of the trench – 140 dirty faces- it was Antonov who spoke first:
“Comrades! The Third International…”
Osipov sat at the orator’s feet, taking notwa: “2nd Battalion, 140 men: workers, 8; employees, 4; peasants, 103; undetermined social origin, 15; returned or recaptured deserters, 40. Commander and four men gone over to the enemy at our arrival. At the first meeting, shouts of `Down with the Civil War! Boots!` Lacking clothing: all. Rations: all. Boots: 27. Low on ammunition.” He hesitated when he got to the question: Morale? Above these 140 heads which had surged out of the earth and were still contaminated with the earth, Antonov was throwing out clear phrases, hammering each one home three times in order to implement them in every brain. The Allies relentlessly set on killing us, all-powerful and yet powerless; Germany, where your brothers in Hamburg – the largest port in the world- are winning victories; the world on the point of exploding in a 1917 vastly more powerful than ours; peace, which we are proclaiming, peace which we will impose through victories and insurrections in every country; the land, which we are holding on to, the land, which the generals and their train of bankers, landlords, and traitors are trying to take back from us (“but all these hungry dogs will break their teeth…)”. The sharp words, cracked out, sometimes like pistol shots, sometimes like a flag snapping in a strong breeze. Pent-up angers changed into a cold exaltation: friendly snickers and stubborn glances were drawn like magnets toward the orator. As soon as he had stopped speaking, someone who had been waiting for that moment cried out:
“We have no underwear, we’re being eaten alive by lice! So!”
And another voice rose up:
“Is it true that the Soviets of Hungary have fallen?”
“They have fallen,” barked Antonov. “Long live the Soviets of Hungary! Hurrah!”
His two fists and his throat tossed out the cheer for the vanquished like the news of a victory. Scattered voices echoed him, sought one another for a moment, and finally came together:
It was the very rumbling of the earth from which these 140 soldiers had emerged. Most of them didn’t know there was a Hungary. They thought they had heard of an unknown victory. They were greeting, in this, the hope of deliverance. They’re right, thought Osipov. And under the heading, Morale, he noted: “Satisfactory.”