Terrorism and Communism, Preliminary Thoughts

I’ve been reading Trotsky’s “Terrorism and Communism“, in which he defends the use of repression and terrorism by the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. Given that I am not a huge fan of Bolshevism, I am, unsurprisingly, disagreeing with the overall thrust of the book – while also agreeing with various particular points. I suppose that’s what challenging books tend to do.

This is only going to be the first in a series of posts trying to wrestle the kinks and details out of the book and my response. I’m just going to note some preliminary reactions I felt while reading it:

The first thing was that there seems to be a tension in what Trotsky sees as the relationship between this revolution (or more generally, proletarian/socialist revolution) and other revolutions in the past.

On the one hand, he wants to say that this revolution is completely new and unique and different. Whereas past revolutions replaced one ruling class with a new ruling class, one form of exploitation with another, this revolution will end exploitation. Maybe not immediately, but it will lay the foundations for an exploitation-free society, or an equal society, or a just society, in a way that was impossible under previous economic regimes.

Yet on the other hand, he wants to affirm the resemblance of this revolution to all previous ones. He wants to say – look at what was done in the French, the American, the British revolutions. Look how violently and with what excess the bourgeoisie cast down its oppressors. Look how much misery these processes produced. How can you expect anything different this time round?

Now this tension isn’t a contradiction – it’s quite possible to think that socialist revolution should resemble previous revolutions in many respects, but differ in others. But it’s a tension. The fact of the supposedly unprecedented and new character of this revolution raises doubts about the analogies Trotsky tries to draw with bourgeois revolutions.

The second issue is about class. It may sound like a basic question, but what makes a person, a group, a movement, belong to a certain class? Trotsky considers it axiomatic that he and his friends are representatives of the proletariat. When the Bolsheviks impose labour discipline or disband factory committees, therefore, it’s actually the self-discipline of the proletariat on itself. I am sceptical. This may prove a point of contention later on…

And this relates to the third issue. The book is largely a response to Karl Kautsky, who was very much against terrorism and indiscriminate murder (sissy). The debate between them, it seems, often resolves itself into a question of questions. That is, Kautsky asks the question: “what are you doing?” If you’re doing a bad thing, stop, and if you’re doing a good thing, continue. Trotsky, on the other hand, asks the question: “who are you?” If you’re a force of the proletariat, then do whatever you want, if not, get the hell out. He openly admits that his methods are no different from those of Tsarism; all that differs is the identities of the perpetrator and victim.

My suspicion, which hopefully will further develop in later posts, is that these two questions may not be as distinct as they appear. That is, I suspect that the methods used are part of what defines the identity of an actor. To give a simple example, if I kill a member of family X, I have (probably) become an enemy of family X. This then has a bearing on such arguments as “since I am a defender of family X, I am authorised to do anything I judge necessary”.

So the critique that Trotsky is responding to might be rephrased as “using certain methods cannot be justified by acting in the name of the proletariat (or the peasantry, or the masses, or whoever) because their use makes you cease to be their representative.” How such a thought might be developed and substantied I’m not sure.

2 Responses to “Terrorism and Communism, Preliminary Thoughts”

  1. Duncan Says:

    It’s been a while since I read ‘Terrorism and Communism’ but I think you may have misread Trotsky’s point about past revolutions and the socialist revolution.

    His remark about the unique character of proletarian revolutions is uncontentious, at this stage, within the Marxist tradition.

    I understood his examples of the violence of past bourgeois revolutions as illustrating why violence would be necessary in the proletarian revolution. The behaviour of the bourgeoisie during their own revolutions indicates they are of a violent and generally devious nature. Thus, they will attempt to reverse, disrupt and generally make a nuisance of themselves during the proletarian revolution necessitating the use of state violence to prevent this.

    Also, I seem to remember reading somewhere on this blog, but now can’t find it due to your voluminous output, that you were preparing some thoughts on the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. If I’ve not imagined this, or no-one else has recommended it, I would have a look at Hal Draper’s seminal work on this idea first.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “His remark about the unique character of proletarian revolutions is uncontentious, at this stage, within the Marxist tradition.”
    Yes, definitely.

    “The behaviour of the bourgeoisie during their own revolutions indicates they are of a violent and generally devious nature. Thus, they will attempt to reverse, disrupt and generally make a nuisance of themselves during the proletarian revolution necessitating the use of state violence to prevent this.”

    Ah, yes that’s a reading I hadn’t considered. I’ll bear that in mind.

    “I would have a look at Hal Draper’s seminal work on this idea first.”
    Thanks for the tip; having looked at it it seems to be mainly about the precise meaning of the word ‘dictatorship’, and defusing the negative associations it’s come to have – unless I’m looking at the wrong document?


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