Terrorism is a touchy subject these days, and I have wanted to avoid the topic of revolutionary terror for that reason. But I feel that what I have to say is important. I have, for the record, condemned all acts of individual terrorism in another post. I do not consider what we call in everyday life, terrorism, to be productive or useful and I unequivocally condemn it. What revolutionary terror is, is not terrorism to establish or make revolution, but terror done by the revolutionary government to suppress counter-revolutionary terror after a social revolution has erupted in a particular society. We see this in France with the infamous ‘Reign of Terror’ under Robespierre, the ‘Red Terror’ under Lenin in Russia, etc. These eruptions in society were not done by a malevolent bloodthirsty government but quite the opposite, these eruptions were done to quell not only counter-revolutionary violence, but to eradicate the subtle, less pronounced violence that plagued the previous epoch. In the words of Danton, the early French Republic was to “be terrible so as to spare the people the need to be so”. Violence is not only direct, most of the time it is indirect, and far more sinister in nature.
In the words of my comrade and fellow blogger, Christian Chiakulas, who runs the blog Radical Christian Millennial, “In a world that produces enough food to feed each and every one of us, starvation is violence. In a society where vacant houses outnumber homeless people six to one, homelessness is violence. A country in which health insurance companies rake in billions in profits while leaving nearly thirty million people uninsured and unable to access medical care is a violent society. This is the everyday violence of capitalism – if it is profitable to let somebody die, or languish in abject poverty, we do so. That is a violent society.”
Perhaps Mark Twain best outlines the defense of the reign of terror when he said, “There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.” For Robespierre and for Lenin, the revolutionary terror sought to eliminate the older, colder, more sinister terror brought about by the old social order. If you read the writings of Robespierre, you see that he understood that he was killing people, that his hands had blood on them. But he also understood how many more would die if the transition from feudalism to capitalism was not complete, if the old terror was not ended swiftly by the new.
For a full defense of the reign of terror, see Sophie Wahnich’s book In Defense of The Terror. The point of this post is to point out that while the Jacobin and Leninist terror was necessary due to historical circumstance, Stalinist terror was absolutely not. The two are incomparable. Let us be frank, as Robespierre himself said, “one cannot cook an omelette without breaking an egg”, but one also cannot pump a tire until it bursts and expect the car to take one to their destination, one cannot forge steel forever lest it evaporate. I will very briefly attempt to elaborate on the typical dialectics of a social revolution:
Thesis: Old society becomes outdated, is already rotten from the inside, and unable to address a crisis.
Anti-thesis: Revolution from below, typically without too much bloodshed. New government established. New constitution written and established. A revolution without a revolution.
Synthesis/ New Thesis: Old ruling classes reacts violently to social change, extreme reaction, counter-revolutionary terror. At this point the international response tends to be greatest, surrounding countries aid counter-revolutionary forces. Country breaks out into chaos/ war.
Anti-thesis: Government reacts by making government revolutionary until peacetime, temporarily suspends new constitution, initiates the terror to suppress the counter-revolution and shorten the birth pains of the new society. The real revolution begins.
At this point, depending on the circumstances, there are many potentialities for where this society can end up:
Potential synthesis: Thermidorian reaction. Nearly all the progress by the revolution is undone and the conservatives/ counter-revolutionaries take power, typically reinitiating the terror against the former revolutionaries and supporters of the revolution from above.
Potential synthesis: Stalinist terror. The revolution is over, the revolutionary terror formally ends. But a bureaucracy takes hold of the state due underdevelopment, unviability for democracy, degeneration of the revolution, etc. Formally the constitution is reestablished, but on paper only. The terror becomes unofficial, unmentionable, and far more terrible than the original. The state believes it can slaughter its way to communism or to some better society. The original democratic gains of the revolution, are, once again, lost. This is what Trotsky called the “Soviet Thermidor”.
There is, however, another potential synthesis. For this reason, I think that in order to truly critique the Stalinist failures of the 20th century, we have to go back to Robespierre himself. Robespierre said once that, “The aim of constitutional government is to preserve the Republic; that of revolutionary government is to lay its foundation.” Robespierre recognized that terror alone was not a means to an end. He recognized that terror was a means to a means to an end. The point of the terror was to lay the foundation for the republic. The point of the republic is to bring the society towards its end goal (i.e. a newer, better social order). As I have previously said, one cannot slaughter their way to communism. Thus,
Potential Synthesis: Peace time is established, terror ends before Thermidorian reaction takes hold. Society is developed enough and economically healthy enough to allow democracy to be established fully among the new ruling class (consisting of the proletariat, or the 99%), in order to make progress towards a stateless, classless society. The constitution is restored not merely on paper but in actuality. The state begins to establish itself in such a way that it withers away. The first act towards this end is the ending of the revolutionary terror. It is terrible not against the people but against itself as an institution of organized violence.
I recognize that the ruling class never willingly gives up political power, and in the struggle for power, sometimes revolutionary terror emerges in a particular society as a response to counter-revolutionary terror and international reaction. I do not glorify this, or portray it as something favorable. But if and when it does emerge in a later epoch, those in power must learn both from Thermidor and from the Stalinist legacy of the past in order to ensure both that it is neither abused or used to the extent that it causes all progress hitherto made to burst asunder.