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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 20, 2004

War and Terrorism

Nelson P. Lande
Pages 167-181

Trotsky’s Brilliant Flame and Broken Reed

Trotsky wrote his Terrorism and Communism in 1920, as a response to Karl Kautsky’s book of the same title of the previous year. Trotsky’s aim was to win over, to the side of the Bolshevik view of socialism, the various European socialist political parties. Trotsky’s book is a rare document in the history of political thought. It is a candid and impassioned defense of the Bolshevik view that the period of transition to socialism is incompatible with both individual liberties and democratic institutions as we normally understand them, and requires instead a one-party state with unlimited powers, prepared to use instruments of terror and repression to achieve its goals. In two articles that he wrote in the late 1930s, he elaborated on this view: he sought to provide an explicitly philosophical defense of the Bolsheviks’ use of terror and repression. Trotsky’s views merit examination for several reasons: first, because they illuminate the ethical underpinnings of the distinctively Bolshevik view of socialism, and second, because they force one to come to terms with the question of how intelligent, reflective, and decent individuals could have advanced policies that strike us today as ghastly. In this paper I try to piece together Trotsky’s arguments as they bear upon both the Civil War and the immediate postwar period of reconstruction. (Here I focus on his critique of democracy, his defense of terror, and his defense of compulsory labor service and the militarization of labor. This proves to be an ideal point of entry into the ethical considerations that underlie his conception of party and state.) I also examine criticisms of the policies that Trotsky was defending—criticisms that were advanced by Marxists of such disparate stripes as Kaustky, on the one hand, and Rosa Luxemburg, on the other.

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