Published in 1920, this short polemic from Trotsky is a reply to Karl Kautsky’s stinging critique of the Bolsheviks in the first years after their infamous coup d’etat. In practice, it was also a warning to the Mensheviks. Kautsky, considered the pre-eminent Marxist scholar after his friend Engels had passed away, thought that they had disregarded the basic tenets of Marxism after their violent putsch. Kautsky was a social democrat 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 doubles down on his theory that the violence, repression and forced labour that the Bolsheviks employed was acceptable. Even if you forgive how the Bolsheviks took power, justifying violence as an acceptable political tool is an egregious political philosophy.
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 yet he advocated for almost exactly what Stalin put into practice.
Kautsky believed 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 have won a majority. This was the real reason that they held onto power. Trotsky, Lenin and Stalin were so ideologically driven that they prioritised communism over democracy. The vast majority of Russians were 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, then they would have voted for them. Why did this not happen? The answer is obvious.
Trotsky’s beliefs still shock the modern mind. Here, he argues for forced labour and suppressing the political opposition. His ideas are incompatible with free societies. Modern leftists using Trotsky as a template need to start again.
In the Soviet Union, the state controlled virtually everything by utilising what Lenin called the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. What did Trotsky think of it? “The dictatorship is necessary because it is a case not of partial changes but of the very existence of the bourgeoisie”. Fortunately, we have the benefit of hindsight to understand why this does not work. Take my native Ireland, for example. In the early 1990s, the Irish state controlled a great deal more industries than it does now. Let us investigate two examples. One could only fly with Aer Lingus, the national airline. It lost huge sums of money every year that the taxpayer had to fund. Flights from Dublin to London were IR£600. As soon as competition came into the market after denationalisation, flight costs reduced, standards got better and inefficiencies in the state were reduced. 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 1990s in Ireland, you had to wait 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 industries, that either the Irish state or its citizens would be better off now? Maybe in fantasy Trotsky land. It has become fashionable for leftists to assume that if we nationalise industries, it will improve them. It won’t.
So, back to 1917-20 and the infamous “dictatorship of the proletariat”. What exactly was this? Mainly, it was the belief that industry and politics would be placed in the hands of one undemocratic state party. By definition, democracy is utterly incompatible with the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Throughout “Terrorism And Communism”, Trotsky sneers at what he deemed the “worthless masquerade that is democracy”, calling it a “puerile illusion”.
Trotsky was honest in his assessment of the three years after the Bolsheviks seized power. He did not pretend, like Stalin later would, that everything was perfect. He wrote numerous times of a “transition” to a successful state. Yet, why did they not have a specific plan in 1920? It would seem to me to be a reasonable request after three years in charge. He complains 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 did not. Why? Because it does not work.
Trotsky derided democracy as inherently “bourgeois” in nature. He was correct in identifying 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 has a point. Democracy is not a panacea. Far from it. Yet, if you go back through history, what other way can we organise ourselves as a species? What is a fairer, juster way to decide our own fate? The democracies at the time were immature. 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 tries to get around this by stating that they spoke for the working class. What utter nonsense. Even if they did, and history has shown us that this was not the case, what about all the other classes? Trotsky also cocks his snook 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 onwards. 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. 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.
Trotsky hints of a future without the Bolsheviks when he imagines a Russia where the “concentration of state power in its entirety (is) in the hands of the proletariat ( which would) set up for the transitional period of an exceptional regime”. He conceives a stateless future where everybody will…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, how it will function.
Trotsky advocates for forced labour. Contemplate this. Forced labour. He writes that there is “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 waxes lyrical about how the Bolsheviks “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 Bolshevik putsch, the Russians were “lazy”.
Trotsky was an admirable anti-imperialist, calling out the mindless violence of World War One. However, he then writes 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? Once again, his undemocratic tendencies are laid bare.
“Only force is possible,” he writes when deciding whether or not a putsch is 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 thoroughly disagree. 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? Sadly not: “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 the vegetarian dig personally. Goodness knows what his thoughts on animal welfare might have been given how blasé he was with human life.
Trotsky looked down his bespectacled nose at the idea of the free press, questioning whether or not it genuinely benefited 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 and, consequently, were to be mistrusted. Moreover, he believed that the bulk of the population were “ignorant” so it would not matter anyway. He could not have gotten it more wrong really.
He thought it 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”. Private ownership of property is critical to the autonomy of the citizens of any state. The concept of the state distributing property is a misguided and dangerous one.
Zizek draws an interesting comparison between Neoconservativism and Trotskyism. Both ideologies seek to implement their philosophy through violence. The Neo-conservatives believe that they can enforce democracy in Iraq and Libya etc. Trotsky believes that force is acceptable in order to realise pure communism. They are both wrong. Any political philosophy has to be brought about peacefully. He concludes “Terrorism And Communism” 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”. I think that it is fair to say that the ship has sailed. Or, should we say, sunk?