Marxism & Terrorism by Leon Trotsky

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Marxism & Terrorism by Leon Trotsky

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Edited: May 12, 2007, 8:20pm

I just posted a review of Trotsky's Marxism and Terrorism. Click on the book to see the review.

Ed. for touchstone.

Edited: May 18, 2007, 2:00am

Trotsky's views on Terrorism (it's counterproductive) were the standard Marxist views of the time. You can find similar writings by Lenin, and it's implicit in Marx and Engels.

I think Geneg's review somewhat understates the main Marxist argument against terrorism, which is that it runs counter to -- gets in the way of -- the main Marxist political strategy, which is to organize the working class, via leading them in struggle over immediate issues, and building mass organizations.

But note that Trotsky had no objection to state terror by Marxists in power, against their opponents.

See his defense here.

Or buy the book here.

Some quotes:

"But the revolution does require of the revolutionary class that it should attain its end by all methods at its disposal – if necessary, by an armed rising: if required, by terrorism."

"... terror can be very efficient against a reactionary class which does not want to leave the scene of operations. Intimidation is a powerful weapon of policy, both internationally and internally. War, like revolution, is founded upon intimidation. A victorious war, generally speaking, destroys only an insignificant part of the conquered army, intimidating the remainder and breaking their will. The revolution works in the same way: it kills individuals, and intimidates thousands. In this sense, the Red Terror is not distinguishable from the armed insurrection, the direct continuation of which it represents."

Trotsky's argument is entirely logical in the abstract, but it does not take up the specifics of the Red Terror which the Bolsheviks employed against their opponents.

Edited: May 3, 2008, 3:11pm

I'm not sure I agree with your conclusion that the terrorism Trotsky was condemning is identical to Palestinian terrorism.

Take the ANC for example, which had a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe ( They waged a violent struggle, were defined as terrorists, but were combating brutal repression with the support of large layers of the oppressed.

There is a distinction between mass guerrilla warfare waged with the support of large layers of the population, and individual acts of vicarious or opportunistic terrorism along the lines of the Red Army Faction and the Weathermen, which are (in my view) what Trotsky addresses.

Your categorization of terrorism should not be identical to the categories proposed by American imperialism. Those are not Trotsky's categories. You don't need to use Trotsky's categories, either, but it is not correct to say that he would advocate your politics.

If you look at it in your terms, I think you foreclose the possibility of any political liberation by or on behalf of oppressed peoples.

Aug 6, 2008, 5:22pm

A very late response, sorry.

Trotsky certainly would not advocate my politics, of that I am sure! (I am a conservative.)

And you are right that violent -- "terrorist" -- acts by nationalists and anti-imperialists against what Trotsky would see as their oppressors, would not evoke an immediate "No, no, this is the wrong way to go about it" from Trotsky. He would want to be careful not to become an echo chamber for the imperialists. But that is a tactical question, of when to say things, not a question of what strategy is best.

For example, in 1938 a young Jew named Herschel Grynspan assassinated a German diplomat in Paris, which gave the Nazis the excuse for Kristallnacht. Trotsky wrote an essay called "For Grynspan!".

The Easter Rising was a classic putsch -- but Lenin praised the Irish insurrectionists, and I suppose Trotsky would have had the same response.

However ... neither Lenin nor Trotsky would have proposed either action. Not out of moralism, I repeat, but because they were not bourgeois nationalists. Their ends dictated, to them, different means.

And I am certain neither man would support Palestinian suicide bombers who target innocent civilians (as opposed to, say, members of the Israeli military), not out of tactical considerations but on fundamental Marxist grounds.

Edited: Nov 3, 2008, 3:32pm

Actually, my recollection is that when I was writing about the Palestinians, I was actually responding to Geneg's review, not yours, Doug!

But there are many points you raise which I would disagree with.

I am agreed with you that neither Lenin nor Trotsky would have proposed the Easter Rising. But in the end that is not the decisive criterion. Arguing in that fashion presumes that the Communists could have been in a position of leadership within that context, and even in Russia they did not get a majority until the eve of the Revolution.

The primary factors that they would have taken into consideration would probably have been the historical "progressivity" of any particular political change (something which Trotsky seems to have been a little more relativistic on than Lenin), and, more importantly, whether such a change advances the interests of the working class.

I don't have a great deal of background on Ireland, but it seems to me that the problems that developed out of the Easter Rising are comparable to those described by Trotsky in the Russian context in "Results and Prospects"; that the political subordination of the working class to bourgeois nationalism was at issue. In that sense I agree with your saying that neither Lenin nor Trotsky would have proposed the Easter Rising; but on the other hand, their support would not have been conditional.

It is not all that different from the Paris Commune itself. It was supported and defended unconditionally despite deep flaws in political orientation.

I would be interested in seeing you outline the fundamental Marxist grounds for L & T's opposition to targeting civilians. I too believe that they would likely oppose the political objectives of groups such as Hamas or the PLA. Generally speaking I think I agree with you that neither would have advocated targeting innocent civilians as a blanket policy in the Palestinian context, and that the grounds for this are, as you say, fundamentally Marxist.

But I do not believe that this would be viewed categorically. For example, the distinction between civilians and the military is predicated on existing law, and there is a distinction between the working class and civilians which existing law does not define.

What do you think of the Algerian FLN?

Edited: Nov 26, 2008, 9:51am

Asquonk: Sorry for the delay in replying. This Group is not on my check-every-day list, but I shall check more often. I hope someone besides you and me is getting the benefit of our arguments.

I've been thinking about the question of Marx, etc. and tactics. I may have overstated my case.

I am probably projecting my own values on to Marx and Lenin and Trotsky, which is not entirely wrong since these gentlemen and you and I are products of the European Enlightenment (and my "own" values are just those I have been taught).

Put it this way: since the Enlightenment, Europeans have become increasingly squeamish about killing people, and doing those fun things that people like to do to their enemies when they have them at their (non)-mercy. So Europeans tend to lie and deny and hide their deeds, and, in the last few decades, have even begun feeling guilty about them.

For most of humanity, in most of its history, killing your enemy is no big deal. Of course you kill him (after a bit of amusing torture), rape and then kill his women, smash his kids' heads by grabbing them by the feet and swinging them against tree trunks -- unless you are people-starved little tribe that finds it more useful to incorporate the women and younger children into the tribe. The idea of feeling guilty about this is completely alien to the people who do it -- which is surprising to you and me, but this just shows how provincial we are.

The many disgusting bloodthirty genocidal passages in Old Testament, Jehovah urging the Jews to wipe out their captives down to the last donkey, testify to this, as does the everyday behavior of your average African or Arab (or Latin American rightwinger or military man) when he gets into a dust-up with his enemies. The Orientals are good at killing but seem less emotional about it -- at least the Chinese do. (The Japanese were happy to rape and torture, of course, when they last fought a war.)

So the Europeans have been more hypocritical, and self-critical, about their mass murders. And the mask has slowly grown into the face. You can't even torture your prisoners in the American Army today, or rape the enemy's women, without the risk of a jail sentence.

So, Marx and Lenin and Trotsky, being practical men, did not, in theory, eschew any of the methods we call "terrorist" (when used by our enemies). But, like the rest of us pale-faces, they were uneasy about it. No Palestinian-style butchering your enemy and then dipping your arms into his blood, or Al Quaeda-style licking it up from the floor; no Congolese-style parading your white captive naked through the streets before cutting out his liver and eating it.

Thus Lenin and Trotsky were perfectly willing to shoot children, if it advanced the cause, but they then felt guilty and lied about it (the Bolsheviks did not take credit for executing the Czar and his family, which obviated the point of doing so), or put the deed into the passive voice (as Orwell advised): "the Czar's family fell victim to the principal axis of monarchy, the dynastic succession ... it was decided not to leave the Whites a live banner around which to rally..." etc.

I think it's just a cultural thing, not really to do with High Marxist Theory. (You'll notice that European "freedom fighters" like ETA and the IRA are gentle and restrained when it comes to blowing people up or shooting them in the head, compared to their Third-World comrades.)

By the way, Lenin was a partial exception to this: he seems to have been almost autistic in lacking actual emotional empathy for his victims. But neither did he take any pleasure, so far as I can see, in killing them. He just did what he thought it necessary to do to take and hold power, without any elaborate Trotsky-style verbiage to conceal what he was doing. And while he was willing to starve the bourgeoisie, he spared their children. Or maybe this was just smart tactics.

Let me put it another way: in the good old days, "targetting civilians" (i.e. other workers, not the bourgeois civilians) was counter to the idea of proletarian solidarity, etc. But since that has turned out to be a will-o'-the-wisp, today's practical power-seeking "Marxists" aren't inhibited by that consideration, nor by European squeamishness -- so they target away. (The real Marxists, I mean, not the kiddies in the West in their toy "revolutionary parties".) And their cheerleaders in the American and European Departments of English can always find some justification for it.

So much for tactics.

As for goals: I cannot resist playing the game of What Would Lenin Do? in today's circumstances, but it is probably meaningless. Things have changed a lot. Back in the old days, Marxists tended to see "national liberation" struggles not led by themselves as supportable, since it weakened the big imperialist countries whose military intervention they feared; and they hoped that their own followers would benefit, and end up inheriting the national liberation cause.

And in some places they did: China and Vietnam, for example.

But generally the genuine national liberation folks weren't about to throw out the foreigners just to replace them with rule by the Reds, who weren't really nationalists at all. "Support" for the likes of the FLN or the Ba'ath by domestic Marxists was usually just a quick way of getting yourself hung by the neck as soon as the nationalists got power and your usefulness was over.

Since there was often almost no chance that the Reds would get power in these countries, I don't know what they should have done to avoid getting their necks stretched, and I can't say what Lenin would have advised, either. He was very power-centered and would have worked something out, for sure.

But the Russian situation was unique in many ways, and generally, there have been few situations in which a small dedicated group like the Bolsheviks suddenly has a chance to seize and hold power with only minority support. (You mention the Bolsheviks having a "majority", and I know what you mean: the Second Congress of Soviets and all that, but it was a sham. Let's be honest about it. George Bush has more support today than Lenin ever did, he just doesn't have a bunch of guys with machine guns who are willing to kill his opponents.)

As for what I think about the FLN: I am glad that I don't have to live under them, and I pity the poor Algerians who do. Just think: they could be living in France today!!! Instead of having to immigrate to reach a civilized country, they could have just been incorporated into the French Rebublic, 35-hour week and all. Poor bastards. (Got to admire those Puerto Ricans who resolutely reject "independence" -- but most Third World types weren't smart enough to see that "self-rule" -- i.e. rule by their own rapacious, incompetent "elites" -- would be far, far worse than rule by the White Man, who was becoming Enlightened and soft and thus escapable-from, just at the time that it might have become desirable to be ruled by him. Too bad.)