Max Shachtman

Introduction to Leon Trotsky’s
Terrorism and Communism


Source: Introduction to Leon Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1961.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxists’ Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Trotsky’s work should be paired with a somewhat earlier work by Lenin which had much the same theme and purpose. The two were probably the most important and, in the Communist movement of the time, the most influential polemical defences of the Bolshevik course in the Russian Revolution of 1917, and both were aimed at the severe critique of Bolshevism by its best-known socialist adversary, Karl Kautsky.

The first shot fired at the Bolsheviks by Kautsky in the summer of 1918, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat [1], drew a reply from Lenin at the end of the same year. The temper of the rebuttal may be judged from its title, The Proletarian Revolution and Renegade Kautsky. [2] Despite urgings by some of his friends to desist, Kautsky resumed the attack the next summer in his Terrorism and Communism. [3] Trotsky used the same title for his answer – the present work – written a year later, then translated into several languages and widely distributed, above all in Communist ranks. [4] To this Kautsky replied in turn in 1921 in his From Democracy to State-Slavery, and in similar writings for years thereafter. [5]

The choice of main target for the Bolshevik barrage was not accidental. The leaders of the Russian socialist opposition to the Bolsheviks – the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionists – were very little known to the mass of the socialist movement outside of Russia; their writings were even less well known. The position of Kautsky was altogether different.

Karl Kautsky had known both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in his youth. After their death, he became the principal literary executor of the two founders of modern socialism. His writings on a wide variety of subjects were regarded everywhere as classical statements of the socialist view. He virtually founded and for 35 years edited the theoretical organ of the German Social Democracy, Die Neue Zeit, and it is no exaggeration to say that no other periodical had so profound an influence upon the whole generation of Marxists before World War I, not in Germany alone but throughout the world. In his own party and in the Socialist (the Second) International for most of its quarter of a century before the war brought about its collapse, he was unique in the prestige and authority in the sphere of Marxian theory that he enjoyed among socialists of all schools. His renown was scarcely diminished, at least up to the outbreak of the war, by occasional questioning of his Marxian orthodoxy by the small but more radical wing of socialism or by the fact that the actual political leadership of his party shifted steadily away from him. It is worth noting, too, that except for the Poles and of course the Russians, no one in the international socialist movement showed a greater interest, knowledge and understanding of Russian problems under Tsarism and of the Russian socialist movement than Kautsky. The Russian Marxists of all tendencies held Kautsky in almost awesome esteem. Up to August 1914, the writings of Lenin in particular are studded with the most respectful and even laudatory references to Kautsky, with whose views he sought to associate himself as much as possible and whose approval he, Lenin, adduced whenever he could as a most authoritative contribution to Russian socialist controversies.

The International foundered in the war. Most of the socialist parties of the belligerent countries supported their respective governments, among them the majority of the leaders and members of the German Social Democracy. This position Lenin denounced furiously as a betrayal of socialist principle and of earlier decisions of the Socialist International. A socialist minority opposed support of the war. In Germany the minority ranged from the extreme left, represented by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, to a more moderate, more-or-less pacifist wing represented by Hugo Haase and supported by Kautsky. This wing (and Kautsky in particular) was no less furiously assailed by Lenin for its ‘Centrism’, its heterogeneity of thought and action, its conciliatory attitude toward the majority, its failure to orient toward uncompromising revolutionary struggle, and especially for its refusal to organise a new, clear-cut revolutionary party of its own and a new socialist International, the Third International toward which Lenin strove from the beginning of 1915. By 1917 the antagonism between majority and minority in the German Social Democracy reached the splitting point. The latter, with Kautsky’s support, organised a new party, the Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) in protest against the war policy of the majority and against its arbitrary actions toward the minority inside the party (Kautsky, for example, was in effect ousted from the editorship of Die Neue Zeit and replaced by a partisan of the majority, Heinrich Cunow).

The schism did not moderate Lenin’s attacks upon Kautsky. They were, if anything, intensified. When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia later the same year and Kautsky, not unexpectedly, promptly came forward as their opponent on an international scale, so to say, the breach between them became wide and deep and irreparable.

From the very beginning of the revolution, the Bolsheviks sought the active support of socialists outside of Russia, not only as sympathisers of the revolution they had already carried out but for the world revolution which was to be led by the Communist (the Third) International which they proposed to establish as quickly as possible. The opposition of a socialist of Kautsky’s standing was therefore a matter of exceptional concern. Hence the vehemence, the intensity and extensiveness, of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s polemics, of which the present work is an outstanding example.

Trotsky’s defence of Bolshevism is devoted to two basic questions. One is the question of the revolutionary seizure of power to establish and maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet form, the kind of party required for this purpose, and the role it must play in achieving it. The other is the question of the methods to be pursued by a socialist revolution in realising socialism, that is, in reorganising the economic foundation of society. Although the questions are distinctive, they were intimately related in Trotsky’s mind. They proved to be not less closely related in the reality of the following years.

On the first question, Trotsky did not waver in any essential aspect of his views from the day he set them down to the day his life was brought so cruelly to an end. He reaffirmed them in 1936 when he wrote a new preface to the French edition and on more than one occasion before then and afterwards. In the period in which he wrote his work, the position of the Bolsheviks in the international socialist movement, particularly in Europe where it had its predominant strength, was gaining influence at a rate which was all the more extraordinary when compared with the nearly complete isolation of Lenin’s group even among the European left wing during the war. Trotsky, like Lenin, of course, aimed at advancing and consolidating this position.

In pursuing this aim, the Bolsheviks were impelled by the most urgent considerations. Primary and basic was this one: while they believed that special circumstances had made Russia ripe for a socialist revolution – the seizure of power – the same Russia was not at all ripe for the establishment of a socialist society. That achievement was excluded in general by the principle that socialism requires the collaborative efforts of the economically most advanced countries and in particular by the fact that Russia was not even one of the advanced countries but rather one of the most backward. The European revolution was therefore regarded by all Bolsheviks as the only salvation of the Russian revolution. The success of this wider revolution was, in turn, dependent upon the quickest possible formation of parties in the West cast in the mould of the Bolshevik party, which meant above all other things parties sharply divided from the then dominant right and centre wings and from their theoretical, political and organisational positions.

The other urgent consideration was this: the prewar Socialist International had not yet been reconstituted, whereas the Communist International had already been formally founded at its First World Congress in Moscow in March 1919. But the new International was still more a prospect than a reality, for its First Congress represented little more than the Bolshevik party. The decision on where to cast their lot was still to be made by most of the European socialist parties. In some of them, the position of the right wing was fairly solid: the German Social Democracy, the British Labour Party, the Belgian, Dutch and Danish parties. But in virtually all the others in Europe, the leadership and membership were divided in different proportions between middle-of-the-road radicals and elements much closer to the Bolsheviks if not already identified with them. Among the former, a movement was growing for the ‘reconstruction of the International’, which would exclude the right-wing socialists, especially those heavily compromised by their support of the war and the war governments, and include the Communist and other left-wing parties without, however, risking domination by the Bolsheviks or the adoption by all parties of the uniformity of programme and practices on which Moscow insisted. This movement, originally sponsored, it seems, by the Swiss socialist leader Robert Grimm, then by his party, and soon after by such important organisations as the German Independents, the French socialist party, the British Independent Labour Party, the Austrian party, even won sympathy among some of the elements of parties, like the Italian and Swedish socialists, that had already formally acknowledged the Third International.

The Bolsheviks had cause for alarm. It was this movement, regarded as the political embodiment of Kautskyism, that became the central target of the Bolsheviks. They wanted an International and national parties completely free not only of the right wing but of the centrists as well. And they wanted them right away. Time was of the essence, and both necessity and opportunity were pressing for drastic decision. To the extent that Trotsky’s work contributed, as indeed it did, to the decision favoured by the Bolsheviks, it must be reckoned as one of the most outstanding literary and polemical successes in modern politics.

It was finished on the eve of the Second Congress of the Communist International, held in July–August 1920. In attendance, the Second Congress was far more representative and impressive than the first. The Bolshevik power now appeared to be firmly consolidated in Russia; it had as good as mastered the armed opposition to it in the civil war; its policies were gaining in confidence and prestige among socialists abroad whose hearts and hopes lifted at the thought that the first socialist revolution was now an established success. The Russians felt strong enough to propose at the congress a detailed ultimatum to all parties as conditions for affiliation. On their initiative the congress adopted the famous Twenty-One Conditions (in actuality, there were 22, a prohibition against Freemasonry having been added to the original Russian list). Affiliated parties had to be highly centralised – both nationally and internationally – with the main emphasis on the latter; they had to be Communist in every respect – in theory, in policy, in perspective, in structure, in leadership; and above all they had to exclude from their ranks both the right wing and the centrists, particularly their leaders who were even specified by name.

The conditions could hardly have been more deliberately stringent. The Bolsheviks simply reasoned that parties not wholly Communist would be prevented by vacillators from utilising the revolutionary opportunities to seize power as the Bolsheviks had done in 1917, and to establish a Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat. The persuasive force of this reasoning, in the light of what appeared in 1920 to be the confirmation of Bolshevik views in Russia and the failure of their adversaries in the socialist movement abroad, quickly showed remarkable, even spectacular results.

The struggle to align the Western socialist parties with the new International seemed to go immediately from victory to victory. Two months after the Second World Congress, in October 1920, the Halle Congress of the German Independents endorsed the Twenty-One Conditions and voted affiliation with the Communist International. Shortly afterward it merged with the then small official German section of the International to form the United Communist Party of Germany. The Independents, with their 800,000 members, were then the largest socialist party in the world based on individual membership (as distinct from parties like the British Labour Party made up in large part of block affiliation from trade unions and other groups). The anti-affiliationist minority retained the old party name; another minority despairingly withdrew from membership; but the fact that a majority of the delegates at Halle voted for the Communist International and the uncompromising fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat made a tremendous impression in European politics. Another two months later, in December 1920, the French Socialist Party congress met at Tours and this time too a majority voted for affiliation with the Communist International and acceptance of its conditions. Again the inevitable split, with the majority renaming itself Communist and the minority retaining the old name. At the Italian Socialist congress in Livorno (Leghorn), February 1921, the result was less favourable. The party had voted affiliation before the Second World Congress, but now it was confronted with the new conditions. The Livorno majority, still favouring affiliation, nevertheless balked at excluding the right-wing minority. The extreme left wing, with about a third of the delegates, then split away to form the Italian Communist Party. The victory here was dubious; in any case it was shattered a short while later by Mussolini’s march on Rome. One more important congress deserves note: in May 1921 the Czechoslovakian Socialists, with an imposing 450,000 members, voted affiliation with Moscow almost unanimously (562 delegates for, only seven against). This marked the last of the important socialist parties, or any substantial segment of them, to come over to the Communist side. There was never again to be another.

Less than a year after Trotsky finished his polemic, the principles he defended in it were subscribed to in wide and decisive areas of the European working class. The confidence of the Bolsheviks which exudes from every page of Trotsky rose to its highest peak. The strength of the Communist International appeared tremendous, almost irresistible. It proved to be more appearance than reality.

The Russian Bolsheviks, and following them their partisans abroad, overestimated the power of the postwar revolutionary wave and in part misjudged its character; and it could be but thin consolation to them that the same error dominated the thoughts and fears of many of their opponents in liberal and conservative circles on the Continent. They underrated the resistive and recuperative strength of capitalism, which they subjected to so many perspicacious and telling criticisms. They miscalculated the extent to which the bulk of the socialist mass in Europe was determined to attain its goal by democratic parliamentary means. Above all else, perhaps, they were mistaken about the ease with which insurrectionary Bolshevik parties could be hurriedly created outside of Russia, with their revolutionary purity assured by statutory and other mechanical devices. Caricatures and simulacrums of the Bolshevik party were forced into existence abroad. But a living image of the party as it was when it took power in Russia in 1917, as it was after an organic development under the unique conditions of Tsarism, has yet to be found anywhere in the world.

This soon became evident. The Russian Bolshevik revolution was not reproduced anywhere else. The Finnish revolution of 1918 was swiftly and brutally suppressed. The so-called Spartacist uprising in Berlin in January 1919 was a Putsch [6], in so far as it was an attempt by an armed minority to seize state power. So was the 18-day attempt to set up and maintain a ‘Soviet Republic’ in Bavaria in April of the same year. The so-called ‘March Action’ which the German Communist Party launched in 1921 was a Putsch, even if on a larger scale, and the ensuing disaster broke the back of German Communism. Two years later, during the deep social crisis of 1923 when a real bid for power seemed warranted and, indeed, an uprising had been extensively planned in Berlin and Moscow, the German Communists withdrew from battle at the last moment and whatever opportunity there was for a revolutionary success slipped by completely and beyond their recall. In Hungary the Soviet regime lasted less than four months, after its leadership had committed, by Bolshevik standards, every political mistake that could be compressed into so brief a time; years later, when discretion was no longer imperative, the chairman of the Communist International characterised the Hungarian revolution of Béla Kun as a Putsch. An emissary of the beleaguered Kun prompted the Austrian Communists to launch an uprising in Vienna in June 1919, but the Austrian Communists, then and ever since, were a perfectly negligible political force and the Putsch ended with its birth. A strange and obscure ‘Croatian Soviet Republic’ was set up for a fleeting moment by troops from Kun’s Hungary, but it is hard to trace even in Communist records. The Bulgarian Communists, among the very first to join the Communist International, a first magnitude power in their homeland, stood by as disdainful and passive observers on the two occasions, 1918 and 1923, when there was a truly revolutionary situation in the country; then in 1925 some of their leaders tried to compensate for the un-Bolshevik conduct of the past by blowing up the cathedral of Sofia. The hopes for a Polish Soviet Republic were dashed during the Russo-Polish war of 1920, when the Red Army had to retreat from Warsaw and take back with them the three Polish Communist leaders who were to be established in power if the military assault were supplemented successfully by an uprising of the Polish proletariat. But it did not rise, and Piłsudski remained in power – the same Piłsudski who was supported for a brief and tragic moment by the Communists six years later when he set up a military dictatorship! The last attempt at a Communist seizure of power in Europe was made in Reval on 1 December 1924. A group of exactly 227 modestly armed Estonian Communists began the seizure of key points in the capital at 5:15 a.m.; four hours later it was all over. The Estonian working class knew nothing about the uprising and showed no interest in it. Some 500 Communists, including the leader of the party, were shot by firing squads; about as many were given prison terms. In informed Moscow circles, Zinoviev, then chairman of the International, was said to have connived at this grisly Putsch and even to have instigated it for reasons of personal prestige, a charge for which some evidence has survived.

But from this series of events, followed by the fierce struggle for power in the Bolshevik party after 1923, the Communist International did not survive, at least not as an organisation of revolutionary parties such as Lenin, and Trotsky in the present volume, sought to promote outside of Russia. What remained of them after the ensuing years of devastating internal wars, expulsions, purges and reorganisations was metamorphosed into obliging instruments at the disposal of the Russian Foreign Office. Such a role was nowhere in the minds of the founders of the Communist International. This helps to explain why so very few of its still-living founders are in the ranks of Communism today.

* * *

This is not the place to enlarge upon the ‘other question’ dealt with by Trotsky: the socialist reorganisation of the Russian economy. Yet, it would not be appropriate to pass over it without comment.

Trotsky was writing at the height of the period of ‘War Communism’. This regime was imposed upon the country by the exigencies of a bitter civil war and foreign military intervention, coupled with a suffocating blockade enforced by the European war victors. The revolution had to fight the civil war in a land already exhausted by the unparalleled losses, in human and economic terms, suffered by Russia in three years of World War. The Bolsheviks tried to subordinate everything that was left of industry and civilian manpower to sustain the efforts of a newly created Red Army. In the cities, a rough equality for all was maintained by ration cards – the payok – with evenly divided national poverty determining a universally pitiful living standard. In the countryside the peasants’ surplus, as fixed by decree and often without decree, was simply requisitioned by the government in exchange for little more than promises of goods, for there was by then little more than promises available. By 1920, industrial production was down to a level that almost defied credulity; the transportation system, never very elaborate, was at the point of total breakdown. Even though the civil war was nearing its end and military attention was concentrated mainly on the war with Poland, the Bolshevik leaders rejected a tentative proposal by Trotsky to modify the regime of ‘War Communism’ and saw no way out of the economic difficulties except to maintain the quasi-military rule over industry and agriculture, to hold to that line of conduct until the siege was lifted by the European revolution on which they laid their main stake.

Trotsky thereupon generalised for the whole of the economy from two specific experiences: the ‘labour armies’ into which some militarily inactive detachments of the Red Army had been converted, and the notable success in improving railroad service achieved by a special transportation committee which Trotsky directed by essentially military, dictatorial measures. The generalisation amounted to the militarisation of the national working force, so ardently urged in this work.

Labour would be commanded like soldiers in an army at war and the trade unions would play no autonomous role. Since the state is the worker’s state, there is no need or room for the worker to be in conflict with it, as he pointed out in his debate with the Mensheviks, which is included in this volume. This standpoint, and the practice that followed from it, encountered rising resistance not only outside the Bolshevik party but within its ranks. The dispute was a fierce one. It came to a head at the Bolshevik caucus meeting for the Soviet Congress at the end of 1920. Trotsky’s view was repudiated and, what was decisive, repudiated by Lenin.

To call our regime a workers’ state, argued Lenin, is an abstraction, because it is, in the first place, a workers’ and peasants’ state, and in the second, it is a deformed workers’ state because it is shot through with bureaucratism:

Our present state is such that the entire organised proletariat must defend itself; we must use these workers’ organisations for the defence of the workers from their state and for the defence by the workers of our state. [7]

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this thought and of what it clearly implied. If the unions of the workers are to defend themselves from the state of the workers, they must have the means wherewith to conduct this defence. In essence, this cannot signify anything less than the right to discuss freely different views on the problems which the state-as-employer presents to them, to decide freely on their position toward these problems and to select freely the leaders who are to voice and work for the position adopted. If, however, the unions are not allowed to have leaders outside the ranks of the only party that leads the government, all of whom are rigorously subject to decisions and discipline not adopted by the unions, the ‘defence of the workers from their state’ is at best dependent on the good will of the party that heads the state from which ‘the entire proletariat must defend itself’. In other words, the ‘defence of the workers from their state’ required, for it to be meaningful, the same political rights for non-Communist workers as for the Communists. It required full democratic rights.

This was precisely what the Bolsheviks, converting the expediencies and necessities of the civil war period into virtues and principles which had never been part of their original programme, were determined not to permit. Lenin made particular note of this at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921. The crisis had just reached an explosive point. The discontent of the peasants was clear throughout the country, manifested even by armed risings. Numerous strikes had just broken out in Petrograd. Then, a week before the congress opened, the Kronstadt sailors rose in arms against the regime. By arms they were finally suppressed.

But the events had their effect. The Bolsheviks could not ignore the fact that Kronstadt was the first uprising against their rule that demanded the revival of the Soviets and the Soviet power, shorn of the Communist political monopoly, of bureaucratism, of military rule of the economy. All talk of militarisation of labour, of incorporating the unions into the machinery of the state, came to an abrupt end. Lenin was obliged to acknowledge that the Bolsheviks had become isolated not only from the peasants but from most of the workers. He confronted the congress with the first outlines of what became known as the ‘NEP’, the New Economic Policy, which soon replaced the military requisitioning of peasant stocks with extensive freedom for the peasant to trade, and relaxed the rigid, super-centralised administration of industry; small private enterprises and private trading were to be allowed within limits; and plans were even made to grant mining, timber and other concessions to foreign capital. The congress endorsed the NEP almost without discussion. But on one score Lenin became more adamant than ever. Precisely because we are making these economic concessions to capitalist modes of production and exchange, he insisted, the repression of all other parties, including Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists, must be made more complete. For the same reason, moreover, we cannot afford the luxury of a factionally divided party. On Lenin’s initiative, factions were ordered dissolved and factional strife within the Bolshevik party was prohibited, at least for the next period. The congress, frightened by all that Kronstadt implied, concurred. The ‘juridical ground’ was now laid for smashing all the later opposition groups in the party.

In the next few years, the NEP brought about a great economic relaxation, not only in agriculture but also in industry, which managed to approach the prewar level. It also brought with it new and gnawing problems, and crucial old ones. How these problems were dealt with by the regime finally installed by Stalin is well enough known to obviate the need to detail it here. The new regime not only militarised the entire working population, as well as the Communist Party itself, but subjected it to a totalitarian organisation, direction and control without equal in the history of despotism. Not only were the workers and what passed for unions (to say nothing of the peasants) deprived of the slightest possibility of ‘defence from their state’, but the very membership of the privileged Communist Party were denied the possibility of defending themselves from the arbitrary rule of their leadership. The basic justification for this is embodied in the ‘Stalin Constitution’, which proclaims that the state property, entirely controlled by a handful of rulers, is ‘the possession of the whole people’. In 1936 Trotsky wrote that ‘this identification is the fundamental sophism of the official doctrine’ of the Stalinists. [8] In 1920 his identification of the Communist Party with the interests of the revolution, to the point where the workers did not need to negotiate with the state or defend themselves from it because it was already theirs, was more easily and openly argued, but not less easily refuted. But even the refutation by Lenin had its ambiguities and inconsistencies. Free from these defects was what Lenin wrote just before the revolution:

It would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that the struggle for democracy can divert the proletariat from the socialist revolution, or obscure, or overshadow it, etc. On the contrary, just as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy. [9]

It is exactly 45 years ago that these lines were written. The fact that they are honoured only in the breach and not in the observance by his avowed followers today does not detract from their validity. It is tragic that Lenin and Trotsky did not observe them when it would have assured a different evolution.


1. Karl Kautsky, The Dictatorship of the ProletariatMIA.

2. V.I. Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade KautskyMIA.

3. Karl Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism; Karl Radek’s reply to Kautsky’s Terrorism and Communism, Dictatorship and Terrorism (Detroit 1921) – MIA.

4. The American edition, published in New York in 1922 by the American Communists (Workers Party), bore the inaccurate title Dictatorship vs. Democracy, a misnomer which considerably annoyed Trotsky.

5. Kautsky’s Von der Demokratie zur Staatssklaverei (From Democracy to State-Slavery) has not yet been translated into English. Karl Radek’s reply to this work, The Paths of the Russian Revolution was first published in English in Al Richardson (ed.), In Defence of the Russian Revolution: A Selection of Bolshevik Writings, 1917–1923, London 1995 – MIA.

6. This term, impossible to translate in a word, may be defined as an armed conspiratorial attempt at state power by a minority not only of the population as a whole but of the working class as well, without the support of the working class or even against its opposition. It is so defined that this term has entered the vocabulary of radical politics.

7. V.I. Lenin, The Trade Unions, the Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes, Collected Works, Volume 32 – MIA.

8. L.D. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 9 – MIA.

9. V.I. Lenin, The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Collected Works, Volume 22 – MIA.

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