This short polemic from Trotsky was a reply to Karl Kautsky’s stinging critique of the Russian Revolution. Kautsky believed that the Bolsheviks had disregarded some of the basic tenets of Marxism by violently seizing power. Kautsky was considered the eminent Marxist scholar worldwide after his friend Engels had passed away. He was a passionate advocate for social democracy and believed that true change had to come about through the ballot box. Trotsky believed in the opposite; permanent revolution.
In “Terrorism and Communism”, Trotsky doubled down on his theory that the violence, repression and forced labour that the Bolsheviks employed was justified and likened their power grab to the French Revolution. Even if you forgive how the Bolsheviks took power, it cannot be deemed acceptable as a long term strategy. This book was written in 1920, after the Bolsheviks had been in power for three disastrous years.
Slavoj Zizek, in the introduction, notes how Stalin kept a battered old copy of “Terrorism and Communism”, replete with his scribblings in the margins, in his study at all times. He used it as a blueprint for how to rule. Trotsky had a reputation as the intellectual heavyweight of the Revolution. Yet, he called for exactly what Stalin put into practice. Anybody that tries to separate him from Stalin is being dishonest. Sure, he may not have turned out as violent as Joseph, but he was fine with employing violence and repression as tools to control the people, “in a period of economic and political dictatorship”.
Kautsky was a social democrat and posited the theory that the Russian people should have decided their own path. We know from the last election before Lenin suspended the Duma, that the Bolsheviks would never win a majority. This was the real reason that they held onto power. They knew that the people would never grant them complete control, so they stole it. Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin were so ideologically driven that they believed that communism came before democracy. This was the fundamental mistake as democracy has to be prioritised. They claimed to be acting in the interest of the proletariats but there is no getting around the fact that Russia should have become genuinely democratic in 1917. The vast majority of Russia’s population was working class and they outnumbered the “bourgeoisie” that Trotsky lambasts throughout. So, logically, it follows that if the Russian people truly wanted the Bolsheviks in power, they could have voted them in as they would have had the numbers. Why not let the people decide? The answer is obvious.
Crucially, there is no blue print for a peaceful Russia in this book. Whilst it is easy to opine on what should have happened one hundred years after the event, Trotsky’s beliefs still shock the modern reader. Certainly, he offers no route forward and this book should be condemned as a relic of a violent past. Modern leftists using Trotsky as a template need to start again. Democracy must come before “Revolution”. Violence can never be justified to run a country. Forcing human beings to work? No. Suppressing the political opposition with violence? No. Ostensibly, this is a letter to Kautsky. In reality, Trotsky was also addressing and threatening the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in Russia at the time.
The concept of communism involves the State controlling everything, the so called “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” as Lenin called it. “The dictatorship is necessary because it is a case not of partial changes but of the very existence of the bourgeoisie,” says Trotsky. He wanted to destroy the class structure. Yet, somebody still needs to manage the affairs of a country. Again, I write with the benefit of hindsight. Speaking from an Irish position, I would not want the State to control everything. In the early 1990’s in Ireland, the State used to have direct control over a lot more industries than it now does. Take two examples. The State had a monopoly on air travel. One could only fly with Aer Lingus, our national airline. It lost huge sums of money every year that the taxpayer funded. Flights user to cost up to IR£600 to fly from Dublin to London. As soon as competition came into the market after denationalisation , flight costs reduced, standards got better, inefficiencies in the State were reduced and everybody benefitted. Aer Lingus began making money by cutting costs etc. The second example is “Telecom Eireann”. This was a State company that used to control the entire phone network. If you wanted to get a second landline in the 1990’s in Ireland, you could be waiting months to get one, if you got one at all. Again, once the market was liberalised, landlines were easier to acquire and the effect of competition improved the offer for the consumer. Are people really arguing that if the State held control of these two areas that Ireland would be better off? Bullshit. Maybe in fantasy Trotsky land. This is the problem with the critique of “Neo-liberalism”. It has become fashionable for leftists to assume that if we Nationalise industries, it will improve them. It will not. This has been proved many times over. This is not to say that criticising Neo-liberalism is wrong – it is not. The best example of it destroying Ireland was when we had to Nationalise private debt. This was a drastic error. That criticism is valid. However, Nationalising industry is not, and will not, be the solution.
So, back to 1917-20 and the infamous “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”. Let us nail down this definition. It is the concept that the State should control everything. It is of critical importance to understand exactly what this was. Zizek tries to pull a sleight of hand by saying that Trotsky should have just changed the word to “Dictatorship”. Nice try, Slavoj! Trotsky and Lenin wanted to end private enterprise and stop individuals from running their own businesses. Think about how much power and responsibility the State had in Russia- it is a genuinely frightening concept. A child could tell you it would never work. Yet, major heavyweight “intellectuals” cannot get their brains around it. The belief was that the power over all industry and politics would be in the hands of an undemocratic State Party. By definition, democracy is utterly incompatible with the “Dictatorship of the proletariat”.
Remember, the first step is to have a democracy. If people vote for communism, then fine, give it a try. See what happens. This is based on the condition that the people can change their mind and vote it out if it does not work. However, Trotsky sneers at this idea. Throughout “Terrorism and Communism”, he looks down his nose at what he deemed the “worthless masquerade that is democracy”. He deemed it a “puerile illusion”. Now, I am all for critiquing democracy and making it stronger and more inclusive. However, to remove the right of the people to vote so that one Party can run a vastly increased State is wrong. It is a dangerous, idealistic vision that can only end up in an out and out dictatorship.
Trotsky was honest in his assessment of the three years of failings that the Bolshevik Party had inflicted on the Russian State. He did not pretend, like Stalin later would, that everything was perfect. He spoke numerous times of a “transition” to a successful State. Yet, why did they not have a specific plan? It would seem to me to be a reasonable request after three years in charge. He does a lot of complaining about how they had to build the “means of production”. Why was this not carefully planned out in advance? At the very least, I thought this book, written three years after initially taking power, would have some specific details about how communism would work. It does not.
Trotsky derided democracy as inherently “bourgeois” in nature. He did have a point when he identified the perilous state of the world and, specifically, of the democratic countries at the time, “Perish the world but long live the parliamentary majority”. I disagree, but he had a point. Democracy is not a panacea. It does not fix everything. Far from it. Yet, if you go back through history, what other way can we organise ourselves as a species? What is a fairer, more just way to decide our own fate? The democracies at the time were immature. For sure, there is an element of self-correction in the parliamentary democratic system. Critically, once you skip the step of the people deciding their own destiny, then you open the door – every time – for a one party system or some other form of subversion. Trotsky tried to get around this by stating that they spoke for the working class. Bollocks. Even if they did, and history has shown us that this was not the case, what about all the other classes? Trotsky also sneered at the “bourgeoisie” throughout. Are they not human beings too? Every Russian of every background should have had the right to determine the future of Russia from 1917 on. What gives the right for either class to rule over the other? As I have already pointed out, there were vastly more working class people than every other class in Russia at the time. Therefore, democracy should have given them the power. Again, the reminder that in the 1917 elections, the Bolsheviks did not win a majority. “Lenin the dictator”, as Sebestyen has shown us, knew this implicitly. That is why he suspended elections in January 1918. In doing so, he spoke for the people when he did not have that right. Trotsky denigrated the working class, whom he claimed to speak for, by deeming them “uneducated” and therefore not deserving of a vote. Once you look down on your fellow human beings in this regard, you start on a very slippery slope. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” as Orwell observed. He saw it. Trotsky didn’t.
Trotsky did at least hint of a future without the Bolshevik Party when he imagined a Russia where the “concentration of state power in its entirety in the hands of the proletariat (would) set up for the transitional period of an exceptional regime”. He imagined a Stateless future where everybody….well, your guess is as good as mine. This is one of the reasons why intellectuals keep returning to communism. It is this opaque utopia where we are all equal. Yet, nobody can explain, in detail, why the State will improve on private individuals running businesses and putting the power in the hands of the citizens. On a cruder level, in a communist State, the government, by necessity, would have an inordinate amount of control. They cannot be trusted with this. This is one of the great contradictions of left politics. They relentlessly criticise the State. Then want to give more power to…the State.
Trotsky was not a believer in political parties having to earn a “socialist majority in a democratic parliament”. Instead, he thought that “political autocracy” was expedient. Trotsky employs some mind-blowing mental gymnastics in backing up his position. At one point, when discussing why they abandoned the constituent assembly, Trotsky says that it would have been pointless as so many of the working class were soldiers who were in the Russian army and not able to vote. Yes, Leon, that is a valid reason for not permitting a free and fair election. It would be funny if it were not to have such tragic consequences.
Trotsky advocated, without a doubt in his mind, for forced labour. Contemplate this. Forced labour. The mind boggles. He said that there was “no (other) way to socialism” than forcing people to work. Sadly, he is correct here. In a communist system, there is no incentive to work, so, yes, you will have to force people to work.
He waxed lyrical about how the Revolution “spurred a lazy and demoralised people to incredible feats of arms”. Once again, Trotsky’s true opinion of the working class shines through. Before the Revolution, they were “lazy”.
Trotsky was an admirable anti-imperialist and I can agree with him there. He called out the mindless violence of World War One. However, he then says that “the destruction of bourgeois Poland, guided by the Red Army’s working men, will appear as a new manifestation of the proletarian dictatorship”. So, Western imperialism is wrong. Fine. But, Russian imperialism in Poland is…OK? You may want to ask the Polish people how they felt about that Leon. Not too good as it turns out. Once again, his undemocratic tendencies surface. It is comically hypocritical that one could be so opposed to Western imperialism and at the same time, cheer on the Russian tanks rolling into Poland.
“Only force is possible” he stated when deciding whether or not the Revolution was justified. “It is hopeless to think of a peaceful arrival to power while the bourgeois retains, in its hands, all the apparatus of power”. I would disagree thoroughly. We need to strive to be as peaceful as possible as a species. But, let us go with that. We need to smash the “bourgeoisie” by overthrowing them. Once in power, they would ease the violence, right? This was not the long term plan for the Russian people? “We were never concerned with the Kantian, priestly and vegetarian Quaker prattle about the sacredness of human life…we were Revolutionaries in opposition and remained Revolutionaries in power”. There you have it. Striving to be a peaceful human being was “vegetarian prattle”. I won’t take it personally Leon. Goodness knows how he viewed animals given he was not concerned with human life. In essence, Trotsky was a violent thug. I genuinely hope there are no leftists who think this man offered a way forward.
A free and open society:
Trotsky defended Trade Unions being part of the State apparatus as the alternative would be them being part of the “Capitalist State”. This was a catastrophic error and led to countless examples of workers protesting for free and fair independent Trade Unions when the State set sadistic work targets.
Trotsky looked down his bespectacled nose at the idea of a Free Press, asking – where did it get the West? His logic for it not being viable? That it gave a voice to scientists who were an integral part of the Capitalist system. Also, because the bulk of the population was “ignorant”. He could not have gotten it more wrong really.
He thought it was necessary to abolish private property and transfer it all to the State for redistribution, “Abolition of private property…was one of the original definitions of Capitalism and is a bedrock of it”. This is an interesting point. If you analyse Capitalism as a historical idea, one of the early defining characteristics of it was the right for an individual to own their own private property. This became commonplace at the end of the Feudal and Monarchical systems. If we think of Capitalism purely in this regard, it is difficult to get past this. Private ownership of property is critical to the autonomy of the citizens of any State. The concept of the State distributing property is beyond parody in any serious dicussions. Think for a moment about what the State could do to people if it had the right to take their property at any point in time. Of course, we do need to do too much imagining- just look how it turned out in China and Russia.
Trotsky justified “compulsory labour” versus “unfree bourgeoisie labour”. He backed “militaristic labour” and decried the Mensheviks bitter opposition to it, referring again to his “man is lazy” theory as a defence for compulsory labour. He decided that “Free Labour is little different from convict labour”. Eh, yes, Leon, it really is. He cites Kautsky’s retort that compulsion is against the ethos of socialism because people have to want to work. This gets to the nub of why people think communism can work. The reality is that if you impose opportunity and outcome then personal responsibility and motivation is removed. The notion that the level of productivity would increase in a State where people’s sole motivation was for the greater good of the country is naive at best. This is why, when we have seen communism in the World, it is almost always observed being physically forced on people. As Kasparov puts it, “communism goes against human nature and can only be sustained by totalitarian repression”. This is also why intellectuals frequently point out that it could be done without repression. The reality is, it cannot.
Zizek draws an interesting comparison between modern Neo-Conservativism and Trotskyism. They both wanted to enforce their philosophy of government on people. The Neo-Conservatives believed they could enforce democracy on any country they wished through violence. Trotsky believed force was justified in seeing his philosophy being realised. They are both wrong. Any Political Philosophy has to be brought about peacefully.
Trotsky thought that the bourgeoisie would never “make its peace” with the Revolution and that, consequently, violence was justified. This is fundamentally wrong.
Trotsky viewed democracy as a “crown” that was increasingly unnecessary as the old institutions of class would “melt away” in a perfectly equal society. We all know how that panned out.
He summed up with a sailing analogy, describing how the “problems which the Soviet government is fixing in practice have no solution in books…the sailing ship has to manoeuvre before the wind, yet no one will see contradictions in the manoeuvres that bring the ship to harbour”. Sadly, for the millions of Russians whose lives were lost, the ship is now lying at the bottom of the ocean.