Revolutionary Terrorism: Three Justifications

By Daniel Bell

Spring 2002



Daniel Bell, a director of the Committee on Intellectual Correspondence, is Henry Ford II Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, Harvard University.


For the radical movements of the nineteenth century, the crucial question was how to make the revolution that would replace existing society. The main division was between Karl Marx, who believed in the creation of mass political parties under the direction of a centralized international authority, and the anarchist Michael Bakunin, who believed in loose communal political federations led by secret conspiratorial activists. In 1872, at The First International's meeting in The Hague, Marx won, and Bakunin was expelled.

The anarchists were chiliasts. For them, there was no inner articulation of time. There was only the absolute present, which could be transformed by a cataclysmic act that would destroy the existing society. "The unchaining of what is today called the evil passions and the destruction of what is called public order," declared Bakunin, was summed up in his famous statement: "The desire for destruction is at the same time a creative desire." Aesthetics and politics were one.

The key idea of the anarchist tactics for the next twenty years was "propaganda of the deed." Violent action would impress on the world both the desperate nature of the social situation and the ruthless determination of those who wanted not to interpret the world but to change it.

The major means of creating terror was assassination. It is striking how frequently attacks on prominent people took place between the years 1880 and 1914. There was the murder of Sadi Carnot, the president of France, and U.S. president William McKinley, the assassinations of the empress of Austria, the King of Italy, and the prime minister of Spain. In 1879 there were two attempts on the life of the Kaiser and one on the King of Italy, a plot to blow up the House of Commons, and an anarchist plot to blow up, all at once, Emperor Wilhelm, the Crown Prince, Bismarck, and Moltke. And of course, that of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.

The most poignant of all these, perhaps, was the murder on March 1, 1881, of Tsar Alexander II by a section of the Narodnaya Volna, the People's Will. These young people, five in all who were directly involved, were the "children" of "the new men," the positive heroes of Chernyshevsky's novel Chto Delat (What Is To Be Done)—the title of which was later used by V. I. Lenin, in his first manifesto in 1902, for it had been the favorite novel of his older brother Alexander, who had been hanged for revolutionary activities.

These young people—students, officers, intellectuals, children of petty nobility—had discarded the "old superstitions" about religion, family, and private property. They were less bound by ideology than by friendship, transcending kinship and social estate.

On August 26, 1879, at a meeting held in a forest, the Narodnaya Volna formally condemned Alexander II to execution, a sentence that took eighteen months to carry out. There were more than seven attempts to kill the Tsar. Two by revolver failed. There were three efforts to mine rail routes by tunneling under embankments. (As Ronald Hingley wryly remarks: "Mines had the excitement of novelty and the Russian railways were still in the first flush of youth, so the Nihilists could claim their tactics to be fully abreast of modern technology.") Finally, on March 1, 1888, as the Tsar returned from an imperial parade, two bombs were thrown; the first narrowly missed him, but as he walked back to the scene of the explosion, he was killed by the second.

There were two extraordinary aspects to this story. Though the participants had been members of an intimate friendship group, throughout the long time of planning and action and failures, they never talked to each other about the deadly act they were carrying out. They knew this was murder, and the sense of guilt (if that was what it was) prevented them from ever discussing it among themselves. The second was the barbaric pageant of their execution. Masses of troops and a crowd of eighty thousand persons, together with representatives of the diplomatic corps and foreign press, watched as two tumbrels carried the five, strapped into position, to the scaffold some twenty feet high, the assassins chained to "pillars of shame."

Yet as Prince Kropotkin, himself an anarchist leader, wrote of the execution of Sophie Petrovskaya, one of the five, "she knew, by the way she carried herself, that by her death she was dealing an even more terrible blow from which the autocracy will never recover."



Karl Kautsky was the apostolic successor to Marx and Engels. In 1893, under the tutelage of Engels, he wrote The Erfurt Program, which was officially adopted by the German Social Democratic Party and was intended to replace The Communist Manifesto as reflecting the changes in capitalism since 1848. Together with Eduard Bernstein, he was the literary executor of Marx and Engels. He was the major intellectual figure of the German Social Democratic Party, which was regarded as the most advanced socialist party in Europe.

In the summer of 1918, Kautsky published the pamphlet The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. In it he argued that the Soviet dictatorship was not that of a class but of a party, that power had come to be wielded by a handful of men, and that this would undermine, if not make impossible, the goals of socialism. A year later, Kautsky repeated the attack in no less stringent terms with his Terror and Communism.

In 1920, while absorbed in directing the Red Army, Trotsky composed a major work entitled In Defence of Terrorism. Trotsky made a virtue of necessity and argued that terror was necessary not only for the protection of the Soviet regime but for the advance of socialism. In a famous piece of rhetoric, he declared, "Who aims at the end, cannot reject the means." "If human life is sacred or inviolable," he declared, "we must deny ourselves not only the use of terror, not only war but revolution itself."

But what made Red Terror better than the opposing White Terror? The justification was the goal, the goal of socialism. "Terror is helpless," he declared, "if employed by reaction against a historically rising class," but terror is effective when it is in the service of historical development. "We have suppressed the Mensheviks and the S.R.'s [the Social Revolutionaries]—and they have disappeared. This criterion is sufficient for us."

But what if opposition came from within? And therein lay the irony. In 1892, a Russian-born anarchist, Alexander Berkman, had shot and wounded Henry Clay Frick, the general manager of the Carnegie Steel Works during the bitter Homestead strike, and had spent fourteen years in prison, where he had written his beautiful Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. In 1918, after the Mitchell Palmer raids, together with his lover, Emma Goldman, Berkman was deported to Russia. Berkman hailed the Russian revolution, for the Bolsheviks had used anarchist slogans such as "land to the people," and had organized workers' and soldiers' soviets, or communal councils.

But in March 1921, affairs were going awry. The Kronstadt sailors who had initiated the revolution were asking for free elections. Trotsky, as commissar of the Red Army, denounced these demands. Berkman in his Russian diary details the mounting tensions in Petrograd. The sailors appeal for support of the workers. Trotsky calls this mvatezh, or mutiny. He demands their surrender or "I'll shoot you like pheasants." The entries in the diary tell of the sorry end: "March 7—distant rumbling reaches my ears . . . artillery has been fired . . . .

"Kronstadt has been attacked. March 17: thousands of sailors and workers lie dead in the streets. Summary execution of prisoners continues."

The next day, the Bolsheviks celebrate the anniversary of the Paris Commune of 1871. Trotsky gives an oration denouncing Thiers for the slaughter of Paris rebels.

In radical history, it is said, every generation has its "Kronstadt"—the time when disillusion sets in. For some, the Moscow trials, for others the Nazi-Soviet pact, the murder of the Jewish intellectuals in 1952, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968. . . . Thus history unfolds.



In 1936, the very leaders of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917—Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, and a dozen others—were placed on trial in Moscow, accused of planning to overthrow Stalin; they confessed, and were executed. Trotsky, in absentia, faced the ultimate charge: a plot to assassinate Stalin, and bring Germany and Japan into a war against the USSR.

In April 1937, a commission headed by the American philosopher John Dewey, meeting in artist Diego Rivera's Mexico City home, investigated the charges and exonerated Trotsky.

But Trotsky still faced the doctrinal question: If socialism was of "historical necessity," what was the character of Stalin's Russia? In a book written in 1937, The Revolution Betrayed, he argued that Russia was still a "workers' state," because all private property had been nationalized, but politically a Bonapartist regime. Here he followed Marx's analysis of Louis Napoleon, who politically stood above the classes, and therefore could not last. Thus the Soviet Union in social form was still socialist.

But Trotsky still had to address the question, going back to his behavior at Kronstadt: How different would he be from Stalin, and what was the character of his own ethics? In February 1938, Trotsky replied in a long essay, "Their Morals and Ours." Means and ends, he said, were interdependent, and other than "eternal moral truths," or divine revelation, "morality is a product of social development . . . it serves social interests . . . and has a class character."

Two months later, Trotsky was answered by John Dewey. Trotsky, wrote Dewey, was himself an absolutist. He derived his justification from an alleged law of history as the source of all social development. But most important, in justifying the means, the means—terror—became ends in themselves. Terror, like a snake, was devouring its own tail.

If morality has a class character, what was to be said about the Soviet Union as a "workers' state"? As a Marxist, Trotsky had postulated that classes were based on the social relations of property. But now he was becoming increasingly uneasy. Former Trotskyists raised the question that the Soviet Union was becoming a new social form, that of bureaucratic collectivism, and developing, as Djilas later put it, a new class, the Nomenklatura, based on bureaucratic position. It was no longer socialist.

Trotsky never got to think through the question. In 1940 he survived a machine-gun attack on his house, organized by the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. But a few months later, a Stalinist agent who had penetrated the Trotsky household drove a pick-axe into Trotsky's brain. Revolutionary terror had found its end.



Revolutionary terrorism, in all its multifarious forms, was essentially a path, albeit a twisted one, to Utopia. Most terrorists had that goal in mind. For Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, that terrorism lies across a gulf of history, and there is an abyss between. As an old saying goes: one cannot cross an abyss in two steps.

Sources: James Joll, The Anarchists; Baruch Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky.


From Correspondence: An International Review of Culture &
, Issue No. 9, Spring 2002. Copyright 2002 by the Council
on Foreign Relations, Inc., All rights reserved. Please reprint or
distribute only with this reference