Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin
Excerp from Conclusion: Why? By Stephane Courtois
[ pg. 727] This book has attempted to look beyond blind spots, partisan passions, and voluntary amnesia to paint a true picture of all the criminal aspects of the Communist world, from individual assassinations to mass murder. It is part of a more general process of reflection on the phenomenon of Communism in the twentieth century, and it is only one stage, but it comes at a key moment, with the internal collapse of the system in Moscow in 1991 and the consequent availability of rich new sources of information that until recently had been inaccessible. Better knowledge of the events is indispensable, but no matter how sophisticated our knowledge may become, it will never on its own satisfy either our intellectual curiosity or our conscience. The fundamental question remains: Why? Why did modern Communism, when it appeared in 1917, almost immediately turn into a system of bloody dictatorship and into a criminal regime? Was it really the case that its aims could be attained only through such extreme violence? How can one explain how these crimes came to be thought of as part of normal procedure and remained such for so many decades?
Soviet Russia was the first Communist regime. It became the heart and engine of a worldwide system that at first established itself slowly, and then expanded rapidly after 1945. The Leninist and Stalinist U.S.S.R. was the cradle of all modern Communism. The fact that it became a criminal regime so quickly is extremely surprising, particularly given the manner in which the socialist movement had developed until then.
Throughout the nineteenth century, theories about revolutionary violence were dominated by the founding experience of the French Revolution. In 1793-94 the French Revolution went through a period of extreme violence that took three distinct forms. The most savage were the “September massacres,” during which 1,000 people were spontaneously killed by rioters in Paris, with no intervention by the government, and no instructions from any party. The best-known form of violence was carried out by revolutionary tribunals, surveillance committees, and the guillotine, accounting for the death of 2,625 people in Paris and 16,600 in the provinces. Long hidden was the terror practiced by the “infernal columns” of the Republic, whose task was to put down the insurrection in the Vendee, and who killed tens of thousands of innocent and unarmed people in that region. But these months of terror, bloody though they were, were only one episode in the long history of the country’s revolution, which ultimately resulted in the creation of a democratic republic with a constitution, an elected assembly, and genuine political debate. As soon as the Convention regained its courage, Robespierre was deposed and the terror ceased.
Francois Furet has demonstrated how a particular idea of revolution was then born. This concept was inseparable from extreme actions: “The Terror was government by fear, which Robespierre theorized as government by virtue. Invented to destroy the aristocracy, it soon became the means to dispose of the wicked and to combat crime. It became an integral part of revolution and appeared to be the only means of forming the future citizens of the republic. . . . If the republic of free citizens was not yet a possibility, it must be because certain individuals, corrupted by their past history, were not yet pure enough. Terror became the means by which revolution, the history yet to be created, would forge the new human beings of the future.”
In several respects, the Terror prefigured a number of Bolshevik practices. The Jacobin faction’s clever manipulation of social tensions, and its political and ideological extremism, were later echoed by the Bolsheviks. Also, for the first time an attempt was made in France to eliminate a particular section of the peasantry. Robespierre laid the first stones on the road that spurred Lenin to terror. As the French revolutionary declared to the Convention during the vote on the Prairial Laws: “To punish the enemies of the fatherland, we must find out who they are: but we do not want to punish them; we want to destroy them.”
Yet this founding moment of terror did not inspire any other followers among the main revolutionary thinkers of the nineteenth century. Marx himself accorded it relatively little attention. Admittedly, he emphasized and defended the “role of violence in history,” but he saw it more as a general proposition than as a systematic program of violence against particular people. There were of course ambiguities in Marx’s writings that were seized on by a number of believers in terror to justify the violent resolution of social conflict. At the same time, Marx was extremely critical of the disastrous experience of the Paris Commune and the resulting bloody repressions, in which more than 20,000 workers died. During the early debates in the First International, which saw Marx opposed to the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, it was clear that Marx came out on top. Hence on the eve of World War I, debate within the socialist and workers’ movements about terrorist violence seemed nearly closed.
In parallel to these events, the rapid development of parliamentary democracy in Europe and the United States represented a new and fundamental factor for socialist strategists. Parliamentary practice enabled socialists to become a genuine force within the political system. In the elections of 1910, the French Section of the Workers’ International obtained 74 seats. An additional 30 independent socialists were also elected, including their leader, Etienne Millerand, who had entered a “bourgeois” government for the first time in 1899. Jean Jaures was another figure who managed to combine revolutionary rhetoric and reforming democratic action in everyday matters. The best-organized and most powerful socialists were undoubtedly the Germans. On the eve of World War I they had more than 1 million members, 110 deputies, 220 provincial Landtag representatives, 12,000 municipal councilors, and 89 other delegates. The British Labor movement was also numerous and well-organized, with strong support from powerful unions. The Social Democratic Party rapidly gained strength in Scandinavia, where it was highly active, influential in reforms, and well represented in parliament. In general, socialists hoped that they would soon have an absolute parliamentary majority in many different countries, which would allow them to implement fundamental social reforms peacefully in the near future.
This evolution found its theorist in Eduard Bernstein, one of the most influential Marxist thinkers of the late nineteenth century, who, together with Karl Kautsky, was one of the great interpreters of Marx. He argued that capitalism was not showing the signs of collapse that Marx had predicted, and that what was required was a progressive and peaceful move toward socialism, with the working classes slowly learning the processes of democracy and liberty. In 1872 Marx had expressed hope that the revolution could take a peaceful form in America, England, and Holland. This view was developed further by his friend and disciple Friedrich Engels in the preface to the second edition of Marx’s Class Struggles in France, published in 1895.
Socialists often had an ambivalent attitude toward democracy. When the Dreyfus affair erupted in France at the turn of the century, they took some contradictory positions: Jaures came out in favor of Dreyfus, whereas Jules Guesde, who was the central figure in French Marxism at the time, declared with disdain that the proletariat would do well to keep out of the internal squabbles of the French bourgeoisie. The left in Europe was far from united, and some currents within it–particularly anarchists, syndicalists, and supporters of Louis Auguste Blanqui–were still strongly inclined to reject all aspects of the parliamentary process, often through violent means. Nonetheless, on the eve of the 1914 war, the Second International, which was officially Marxist, endorsed a series of peaceful solutions, relying on mobilization of the masses and universal suffrage.
The extremist wing of the International, which had coalesced around the turn of the century, included the most hard-line Russian socialists–Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Although the Bolsheviks were clearly descended from the European Marxist tradition, they also had strong roots in the revolutionary Russian land movement. Throughout the nineteenth century one section of this revolutionary movement was linked to violent activity. The most radical proponent of violence within the movement was Sergei Nechaev, whom Dostoevsky used as a model for the revolutionary protagonist of The Devils. In 1869 Nechaev published a Revolutionary Catechism in which he defined a revolutionary as “a man who is already lost. He has no particular interest, no private business, no feelings, no personal attachments, and no property; he does not even have a name. Everything in him is absorbed by one interest to the exclusion of all others, by a single thought, a single passion . . . .revolution. In the depths of his being, not simply in words but in his actions as well, he has broken all links with society and the world of civilization, with its laws and conventions, with its social etiquette and its moral code. The revolutionary is an implacable enemy, and he carries on living only so that he can ensure the destruction of society.”
Nechaev then set out his objectives: “The revolutionary never enters the political or social world, the so-called educated world, and he lives with faith only in its swift and total destruction. No one who feels pity for anything can truly be called a revolutionary.” His plan of action argued that “this whole sick society must be divided into several categories. In the first category are the people who are to be killed immediately. . . .The second should include individuals who are to be allowed to continue living for a while, so that by their monstrous acts they merely accelerate the inevitable uprising of the people.”
Nechaev had several imitators. On 1 March 1887 an attempt was made on the life of Tsar Aleksandr III; it failed, but the perpetrators were arrested. Among them was Aleksandr Ilich Ulyanov, Lenin’s older brother, who was hanged together with his four accomplices. Lenin’s hatred for the regime was thus deep-seated, leading him personally to decide and to organize the massacre of the imperial Romanov family in 1918 without the knowledge of the rest of the Politburo.
For Martin Malia, this violent action by one faction of the intelligentsia represented “a fantasy reenactment of the French revolution [that] was the beginning of political terrorism (as opposed to isolated acts of assassination) as a systematic tactic in the modern world. Thus, the populist strategy of mass insurrection from below, in conjunction with that of elite terror from above, combined in Russia to lend further legitimacy to political violence over and above the initial legitimation provided by the Western revolutionary tradition from 1789 to 1871.”
This political violence on the margins of society was fueled by the violence that for centuries had been a common feature of life in Russia, as Helene Carriere d’Encausse emphasizes in her study The Russian Syndrome: “This country, in its unparalleled misfortune, remains an enigma for students of its history. In trying to shed light on the underlying causes of this age-old tragedy, a specific–and always damaging–link has emerged between the seizure or maintenance of power and the practice of political murder, be it individual or mass, real or symbolic. . . This long tradition of murder has doubtless created a collective consciousness that has little hope for a pacified political world.”
Tsar Ivan IV, known to posterity as Ivan the Terrible, was only thirteen when in 1543 he had his prime minister, Prince Chuisky, devoured by dogs. In 1560 his wife’s death threw him into a murderous rage, leading him to suspect everyone of being a potential traitor and to exterminate his real or imagined enemies in ever-widening circles. He created a new guard with sweeping powers, called the Oprichnina, which set about sowing terror among the populace. In 1572 he liquidated the members of the Oprichnina and then killed his own son and heir. Peter the Great was scarcely more compassionate toward Russia’s enemies, the aristocracy, or the people, and he also killed his own son with his own hands.
From Ivan to Peter, a solid tradition arose that linked progress under absolute power to the enslavement of the people and the elite to the dictatorial and terrorist state. As Vasily Grossman noted regarding the end of serfdom in 1861: “This act, as the following century showed, was more genuinely revolutionary than the October Revolution. Emancipation shook the millennial foundations of Russian life, as neither Peter nor Lenin could shake them: the subjection of progress to slavery.” And as always, the slavery had been held in place for centuries through a high level of permanent violence.
Tomas Masaryk, a great statesman and the founder in 1918 of Czechoslovakia, who visited Russia frequently during the revolution and consequently knew the country well, was quick to draw a link between tsarist and Bolshevik violence. He wrote in 1924: “The Russians, including the Bolsheviks, are all sons of tsarism: this has been their culture and their education for centuries. They got rid of the tsar, but they cannot get rid of tsarism overnight. They still wear the uniform of tsarism, even if it is back-to-front. . . The Bolsheviks were not ready for a positive, administrative revolution. What they wanted was a negative revolution whose doctrinal fanaticism, meanness of spirit, and general lack of culture they could use as a pretext for any number of acts of destruction. One thing I hold against them above all is the pleasure they took in murder, just like the tsars before them.”
The culture of violence was not uniquely the preserve of the powerful. When the peasant masses began to revolt, they engaged in massacres of the nobility and truly savage terror of their own. Two such revolts that left a deep imprint on the Russian consciousness were the Stenka Razin revolt of 1667-1670 and the Pugachev rebellion of 1773-1775, which spread quickly and posed a serious threat to the reign of Catherine the Great, leaving a long and bloody scar all across the Volga region. After his capture, Emelyan Pugachev was executed in an atrocious manner–quartered, cut into pieces, and fed to dogs.
Maksim Gorky was a great interpreter of pre-1917 Russian culture, and if he is to be believed, the violence emanated from society itself. He disapproved of the Bolsheviks’ methods, and in 1922 he wrote a long, almost visionary text: “Cruelty has stupefied and tormented me all my life. What are the roots of human cruelty? I have thought much about this and I still do not understand it in the slightest . . . But now, after the terrible madness of the European war and the bloody events of the revolution . . . I am forced to remark that Russian cruelty appears not to have evolved at all; its forms have remained the same. A chronicler from the turn of the seventeenth century recorded that in his day the following tortures were practiced: ‘The mouth was filled with gunpowder, and then set alight; others have their nether regions filled with powder. Holes were made in women’s breasts and ropes passed through the wounds, and the women were suspended by the ropes.’ In 1918 and 1919 the same practices were used in the Don and the Urals; men had dynamite placed in their rear and blown up. I think the Russians have a unique sense of particular cruelty in the same way that the English have a unique sense of humor: a cold sort of cruelty that seeks to explore the limits of human resistance to suffering and to study the persistence and stability of life. One can sense a diabolical refinement in Russian cruelty; there is something quite subtle and refined about it. This quality cannot fully be explained by words like ‘psychosis’ or ‘sadism,’ words that in essence explain nothing at all. . . If such acts of cruelty were the expression of the perverse psychology of a few individuals, they would not concern us here; they would be material for the psychiatrist rather than for the moralist. But I am concerned here with human suffering as a collective entertainment . . . .Who are the more cruel, the Whites or the Reds? They are probably equal, as they are both Russians. In any case, history answers quite clearly–the most cruel is the most active.”
Despite this tradition of violence, Russia by the mid-nineteenth century seemed to have adopted a more moderate, Western, and democratic course. In 1861 Tsar Aleksandr III abolished serfdom and established zemstvos, which were local centers of power. In 1864 he approved judicial independence as the first step toward the rule of law. The universities, the arts, and the press all flourished. A civilizing current flowed through society, and violence decreased everywhere. Even the failed revolution of 1905 had the result of stirring up the democratic fervor of society. Paradoxically, it was precisely at the moment when reform seemed to have conquered violence, obscurantism, and old-fashioned ways that the process was interrupted by the outbreak of the worst mass violence ever seen in Europe, on 1 August 1914.
As Martin Malia has written, “The burden of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is that crime begets crime, and violence violence, until the first crime in the chain, the original sin of the genus, is expiated through accumulated suffering. In similar fashion, it was the blood of August 1914, acting like some curse of the Atreidae on the house of modern Europe, that generated the chain of international and social violence that has dominated the modern age. For the violence and carnage of the war were incommensurate with any conceivable gain, and for any party. The war itself produced the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power.” Lenin would not have rejected this analysis. From 1914 on he constantly called for the transformation of “the imperialist war into civil war,” prophesying that the socialist revolution would emerge from the capitalist war.
The violence of the world war was extreme and went on for four years, a continuous massacre that seemed totally insoluble, leading to the death of 8.5 million soldiers. It was a new type of war, which General Ludendorff labeled “total war,” bringing death not only to soldiers but also to civilians. Yet the violence, which reached a level never before seen in the history of the world, remained constrained by a whole series of laws and international conventions.
The daily slaughter, often under terrible conditions–gas, men buried alive under earth thrown up by explosions, the long agony between the lines–weighed heavily on the consciousness of everyone concerned and weakened the psychological defenses of the men who faced death every day. Many people were completely desensitized by these events. Karl Kautsky, the main leader and theorist of German socialism, returned to that theme in 1920: “The real cause of the change. . . into a development toward brutality is attributable to the world war. . . When, therefore, the war broke out and dragged in its train for four years practically the whole of the healthy male population, the coarsening tendencies of militarism sank to the very depths of brutality, and to a lack of human feeling and sentiment. Even the proletariat could no longer escape its influence. They were to a very high degree infected by militarism and, when they returned home again, were in every way brutalized. Habituated to war, the man who had come back from the front was only too often in a state of mind and feeling that made him ready, even in peacetime and among his own people, to enforce his claims and interests by deeds of violence and bloodshed. That became, as it were, an element of the civil war.”
None of the Bolshevik leaders actually took part in the war, either because, like Lenin, Trotsky, and Zinoviev, they were in exile or because they had been sent to Siberia, as was the case with Stalin and Kamenev. Most of them were inclined to work in the bureaucracy or to make speeches at mass rallies. Most had no military experience, and they had never really seen combat or the deaths that it involved. Until they took power, all they knew was the ideological and political war of words. Theirs was a purely abstract vision of death, massacre, and human catastrophe.
This personal ignorance of the horrors of war was perhaps a factor that itself engendered more brutality. The Bolsheviks developed a largely theoretical analysis of class, which ignored the profoundly national, not to say nationalistic, aspects of the conflict. They made capitalism the scapegoat and sanctioned revolutionary violence against it in advance. By hastening the end of capitalism, the revolution would put an end to massacres, even if it meant disposing of a certain number of the capitalist leaders. This was a macabre gamble, based on the theory that evil should be fought with evil. But in the 1920s, a certain degree of pacifism arising from revulsion toward the war was often strongly influential in converting people to Communism.
It is still the case, however, as Francois Furet emphasizes in The Passing of an Illusion, that “war is waged by regimented civilian masses, who have gone from the autonomy of citizenship to military obedience for a time of unknown duration, and who are plunged into a raging inferno where staying alive rather than being intelligent or courageous is the main objective, and where even victory is a distant abstraction. Military service can rarely have seemed less noble than it did to the millions of men plucked from civilian life and trapped in the trenches . . . War is the political state furthest removed from normal civilian life . . . It is a purely instinctive business totally removed from other interests and intellectual pursuits . . . . An army at war is a social order in which individuals no longer exist, and whose inhumanity creates a sort of inertia that is almost impossible to break.”
The war gave a new legitimacy to violence and cheapened the value of human life; it weakened the previously burgeoning democratic culture and gave new life to the culture of servitude.
In the early years of the twentieth century the Russian economy entered a period of vigorous growth, and society gradually became more autonomous. But the exceptional constraints imposed on people and on the means of production by the war suddenly highlighted the limitations of a political regime that clearly lacked the energy and foresight required to save the situation. The revolution of February 1917 was a response to a catastrophic situation and put society on a classic course: a “bourgeois” democratic revolution with the election of a constituent assembly, combined with a social revolution among workers and peasants. Everything changed with the Bolshevik coup of 7 November 1917, which was followed by a considerably more violent phase. The question that remains is why, of all the countries in Europe, did the cataclysm take place in Russia?
The world war and the tradition of violence in Russia are undoubtedly factors that allow some understanding of the context in which the Bolsheviks seized power; but they do not explain the Bolsheviks’ propensity for extreme violence. This violence was apparent from the outset, all the more so in comparison with the largely peaceful and democratic February revolution. This violence was imposed on the Party by Lenin himself as soon as it seized power.
Lenin established a dictatorship that quickly revealed itself to be both bloody and terrorist in nature. Revolutionary violence no longer appeared to be a reactive defense mechanism against tsarist forces, since the latter had disappeared months before, but an active process that reawakened the old Russian culture of brutality and cruelty, sparking the latent violence of social revolution. Although the Red Terror was not officially inaugurated until 2 September 1918, it existed in practice from November 1917. Lenin employed it despite the absence of any genuine manifestation of overt opposition from other parties and social movements. For example, on 4 January 1918 he broke up the first Constituent Assembly, which had been elected by universal suffrage, and opened fire on anyone who protested in the streets.
The first phase of the terror was immediately and forcefully denounced by a leading Russian socialist, Yuri Martov, the head of the Mensheviks, who wrote in August 1918: “From the first day of their coming into power, having proclaimed the abolition of the death penalty, the Bolsheviks began to kill. They killed prisoners captured in the battles of the civil war. They killed enemies who surrendered on the condition that their lives would be spared . . . .These wholesale murders, organized at the instigation of the Bolsheviks, were followed by murders at the direct behest of the Bolshevik government . . . Having assassinated tens of thousands of men without trial, the Bolsheviks started their executions by verdicts of the courts. They established a supreme revolutionary tribunal to convict enemies of the Soviet regime. . . .The beast has licked hot human blood. The man-killing machine is brought into motion. Messrs. Medvedev, Bruno, Peterson, Veselovsky, and Karelin [the judges of the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal] have turned up their sleeves and set to work as butchers. . . But blood breeds blood. The reign of terror established by the Bolsheviks since October 1917 has filled the air of Russian fields with vapors of human blood. We witness the growth of the bitterness of the civil war, the growing bestiality of men engaged in it. The great principles of true humanity that formed the basis of socialist teachings have sunk into oblivion.”
Martov then went on to attack Karl Radek and Christian Rakovsky, two socialists who had joined the Bolsheviks, one of whom was a Polish Jew, the other a mixture of Romanian and Bulgarian: “You came to us to cultivate our ancestral barbarism, long nurtured by the tsars, and to place offerings on the antique Russian altar to murder, to elevate disdain for the life of others to a degree the like of which has never been seen; you came to bring the rule of the executioners throughout the country. . . The executioner is now again the chief figure in Russia!”
Unlike the terror of the French Revolution, which with the exception of the Vendee touched only a small section of the population, terror under Lenin was directed at all political parties and at all the layers of society: nobles, the bourgeoisie, soldiers, policemen, Constitutional Democrats, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and the entire mass of the population, including peasants and workers. Intellectuals were treated especially badly. On 6 September 1919, after the arrest of several dozen members of the intelligentsia, Gorky sent a furious letter to Lenin: “For me, the richness of a country, the power of a people is to be measured by the quantity and quality of its intellectual development. Revolution is a useful enterprise only if it favors such development. Scholars should be treated with care and respect. But in trying to save our own skins, we are decapitating the people, destroying our own brain.”
The brutality of Lenin’s response matched the lucidity of Gorky’s letter: “We would be wrong to equate the ‘intellectual strength of the people’ with the strength of the bourgeois intelligentsia. . . The intellectual strength of workers and peasants grows in the struggle to overturn the bourgeoisie and their acolytes, those second-rate intellectuals and lackeys of capitalism who think they are the brain of the nation. They are not the brain of the nation. They’re shit.” This response on the subject of intellectuals is one of the first indicators of the profound disdain that Lenin felt for his contemporaries, even the most eminent among them. And he quickly passed from disdain to murder.
Lenin’s primary objective was to maintain his hold on power for as long as possible. After ten weeks, he had ruled longer than the Paris Commune, and he began to dream about never letting go of the reins. The course of history was beginning to change, and the Russian Revolution, under the direction of the Bolsheviks, was to take humanity down a previously untraveled path.
Why should maintaining power have been so important that it justified all means and led to the abandonment of the most elementary moral principles? The answer must be that it was the only way for Lenin to put his ideas into practice and “build socialism.” The real motivation for the terror thus becomes apparent: it stemmed from Leninist ideology and the utopian will to apply to society a doctrine totally out of step with reality.
In that respect one may well ask exactly how much pre-1914 Marxism there was to be found in pre-1914 or post-1917 Leninism. Lenin of course used a number of Marxist axioms as the basis for his theories, including the class struggle, the necessity of violence in history, and the importance of the proletariat as the class that brought meaning to history. But in 1902, in his famous address What Is to Be Done? he proposed a new conception of a revolutionary party made up of professionals linked in an underground structure of almost military discipline. For this purpose, he adopted and further developed Nechaev’s model, which was quite different from the great socialist organizations in Germany, England, and France.
In 1914 Lenin made a definitive break with the Second International. At the moment when almost all socialist parties, brutally confronted with the power of nationalist sentiments, rallied around their respective governments, Lenin set off on an almost purely theoretical path, prophesying the “transformation of the imperialist war into civil war.” Cold reason led him to conclude that the socialist movement was not yet powerful enough to counter nationalism, and that after the inevitable war he would be called on to regroup his forces to prevent a return to warfare. This belief was an act of faith, a gamble that raised the stakes of the game to all or nothing. For two years his prophecy seemed sterile and empty, until suddenly it came true and Russia entered a revolutionary phase. Lenin was sure that the events of this period were the confirmation of all his beliefs. Nechaev’s voluntarism seemed to have prevailed over Marxist determinism.
If the prediction that power was there to be seized was correct, the idea that Russia was ready to plunge into socialism, making progress at lightning speed, was radically wrong. And this was one of the most profound causes of the terror, the gap between a Russia that wanted more than anything to be free and Lenin’s desire for absolute power to apply an experimental doctrine.
In 1920 Trotsky predicted the turn that events were to take: “It is quite clear that if our problem is the abolition of private property in the means of production, the only road to its solution lies through the concentration of state power in its entirety in the hands of the proletariat, and the setting up for the transitional period of an extraordinary regime . . . Dictatorship is necessary because this is a case not of partial changes, but of the very existence of the bourgeoisie. No agreement is possible on this basis. Only force can be the deciding factor . . . Whoever aims at the end cannot reject the means.”
Caught between the will to apply his doctrine and the necessity of retaining his grip on power, Lenin created the myth of a worldwide Bolshevik revolution. In November 1917 he wanted to believe that the revolutionary fire was going to engulf all countries involved in the war, and Germany above all others. But a worldwide revolution did not come about, and after Germany’s defeat in November 1918, a new European order emerged that seemed to care little for the abortive revolutions in Hungary, Bavaria, and Berlin. This was already obvious when the Red Army was defeated in Warsaw in 1920, but it was not admitted until 1923, after the failure of the German October. The failure of the Leninist theory of European and worldwide revolution left the Bolsheviks quite isolated and in a head-to-head conflict with an increasingly anarchic Russia. In a desperate attempt to hold onto power, the Bolsheviks made terror an everyday part of their policies, seeking to remodel society in the image of their theory, and to silence those who, either through their actions or by their very social, economic, or intellectual existence, pointed to the gaping holes in the theory. Once in power, the Bolsheviks made Utopia an extremely bloody business.
This double gap–a gap both between Marxism and Leninism and between Leninist theory and reality–led to one of the first fundamental debates about the meaning of the Russian and Bolshevik revolution. Kautsky was quite clear about it in August 1918: “In no case need we anticipate that in Western Europe the course of the great French Revolution will be repeated. If present day Russia exhibits so much likeness to the France of 1793, this shows only how near it stands to the stage of middle-class revolution.” Kautsky saw 1917 not as the first socialist revolution, but as the last bourgeois revolution.
Following the Bolshevik seizure of power, the status of ideology within the socialist movement changed radically. Before, 1917 Lenin had already demonstrated his adamant conviction that he was the only one who truly understood the doctrine of socialism and who could decode the “true meaning of history.” The outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power appeared to Lenin as portents from above and as an incontestable confirmation that his ideology and his analyses were infallibly correct. After 1917 his policies and the theoretical elaboration that accompanied them became gospel. Ideology was transformed into dogma and absolute, universal truth. This conversion of ideology into sacred writ had immediate consequences, which were noted by Cornelius Castoriadis: “If there is one true theory in history, if there is a rationality at work in things, then it is clear that its development should be entrusted to specialists in that theory and technicians of that particular rationale. The absolute power of the Party. . . has a philosophical status; its foundation is a function of the materialist conception of history. . . If that concept is true, power should be absolute, and democracy is a concession to the human fallibility of the leaders, or a pedagogical procedure that they alone can measure out in the correct dosages.”
This transformation of ideology and politics into absolute, “scientific” truth is the basis of the totalitarian dimension of Communism. The Party answered only to science. Science also justified the terror by requiring that all aspects of social and individual life be transformed.
Lenin affirmed the verity of his ideology when proclaiming himself to be the representative of the numerically weak Russian proletariat, a social group he never refrained from crushing whenever it revolted. This appropriation of the symbol of the proletariat was one of the great deceptions of Leninism, and in 1922 it provoked the following outburst from Aleksandr Shlyapnikov, one of the few Bolshevik leaders who really did have proletarian origins. At the Eleventh Party Congress he addressed Lenin directly: “Vladimir Ilich affirmed yesterday that the proletariat as a class in the Marxist sense does not exist in Russia. Allow me to congratulate you for managing to exercise dictatorship on behalf of a class that does not actually exist!” This manipulation of the symbol of the proletariat was common to all Communist regimes in Europe and the Third World, as well as in China and Cuba.
The manipulation of language was one of the most salient characteristics of Leninism, particularly in the decoupling of words from the reality they were supposed to represent, as part of an abstract vision of society in which people lost their real weight and presence and were treated as no more than pieces in a social and historical erector set. This process of abstraction, closely linked to ideology, is another key factor in the birth of the terror. It was not human beings who were being killed, but “the bourgeoisie,” “capitalists,” or “enemies of the people.” It was not Nicholas II and his family who were killed, but “the representatives of feudalism,” “bloodsuckers,” “parasites,” or “lice.”
This transformation of ideology gained considerable weight thanks to the Bolsheviks’ swift seizure of power, which immediately brought legitimacy, prestige, and the necessary means for taking action. In the name of Marxist ideology, the Bolsheviks passed from symbolic violence to real violence while establishing a system of absolute and arbitrary power that they called “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” reusing an expression Marx had once used in a somewhat oft-handed manner in his correspondence. They also began a formidable process of proselytism, which brought new hope and seemed to purify their revolutionary message. That message of hope quickly resonated among those driven by a desire for revenge at the end of the war, and among those who dreamed of a reactivation of the revolutionary myth. Bolshevism quickly acquired a universal relevance and attracted imitators throughout the world. Socialism had come to a crossroads: democracy or dictatorship.
In his book The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, written during the summer of 1918, Kautsky turned the knife in the wound. Although the Bolsheviks had been in power for only six months and there had been only a few hints of the dreadful massacres that were to follow, Kautsky already saw what was at stake: “The antagonism of the two socialist movements . . . is the clashing of two fundamentally distinct methods: that of democracy and that of dictatorship. Both movements have the same end in view: to free the proletariat, and with it humanity, through socialism. But the view taken by one is held by the other to be erroneous and likely to lead to destruction. . . We place ourselves, of course, by asking for the fullest discussion, firmly on the side of democracy. Dictatorship does not ask for the refutation of contrary views, but the forcible suppression of their utterance. Thus, the two methods of democracy and dictatorship are already irreconcilably opposed before the discussion has started. The one demands, the other forbids it.”
Putting democracy at the center of his argument, Kautsky continued: “A minority dictatorship always finds its most powerful support in an obedient army, but the more it substitutes this for majority support, the more it drives the opposition to seek a remedy by an appeal to the bayonet, instead of an appeal to the vote that is denied them. Civil war becomes a method of adjusting political and social antagonisms. Where complete political and social apathy or dejection does not prevail, the minority dictatorship is always threatened by armed attack or constant guerrilla warfare . . . The dictatorship is then involved in civil war, and lives in constant danger of being overthrown. There is no greater obstacle to the building of a socialist society than internal war . . . In a civil war, each party fights for its existence, and the vanquished are threatened with complete destruction. The consciousness of this fact is why civil wars are so terrible.”
This prophetic analysis demanded a response, and Lenin wrote an angry rejoinder that became famous in its own right, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. The title was a fair indication of the tone of the discussion therein, or, as Kautsky argued, the refusal to conduct a discussion. Citing Engels, Lenin made clear what was at the center of his thought and his actions: “In reality the state is nothing but a machine for the suppression of one class by another.” This reductive concept of the function of the state was accompanied by an analysis of the essence of dictatorship: “Dictatorship is rule based directly on force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained through the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.”
Faced with the central question of democracy, Lenin evaded it with an intellectual pirouette: “Proletarian democracy, of which Soviet government is one of the forms, has brought a development and expansion of democracy hitherto unprecedented in the world, precisely for the vast majority of the population, for the exploited and toiling people.” The expression “proletarian democracy,” it should be remembered, was used for decades afterward to cover up a large number of terrible crimes.
The quarrel between Kautsky and Lenin highlights exactly what was at stake in the Bolshevik revolution. The quarrel was between Marxism, which claimed to be the codification of “the inevitable laws of history,” and an activist subjectivism that was willing to use anything to promote revolutionary action. The underlying tension in Marx’s writings between the messianic rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and the clinical analysis of social movements to be found inDas Kapital was transformed by the triple influence of the world war, the February revolution, and the October Revolution into a profound and irreparable split between socialists and Communists that brought them into conflict throughout the twentieth century. The choices underlying the quarrel were no less important: democracy or dictatorship, humanity or terror.
Completely in thrall to revolutionary fervor and confronted by a whirlwind of events, Lenin and Trotsky, the two main actors in this first phase of the Bolshevik Revolution, theorized their actions extensively. Or, rather, they transformed conjecture into ideological conclusions. They invented the idea of a “permanent revolution,” which they based on the Russian case, in which the bourgeois February revolution supposedly led straight into the proletarian October Revolution. They dressed up this situation in ideological terms as the transformation of a “permanent revolution” into “permanent civil war.”
The importance of the war can be gauged by the impact it had on the revolutionaries. As Trotsky wrote, “Kautsky sees one of the reasons for the extremely bloody character of the revolution in the war and in its hardening influence on manners.” But Trotsky and Kautsky did not come to the same conclusion: The German socialist, faced with the weight of militarism, was ever more open to the question of democracy and the defense of the rights of the individual. For Trotsky, “the development of bourgeois society itself, out of which contemporary democracy grew, in no way represents the process of gradual democratization that figured before the war in the dreams of the greatest socialist illusionist of democracy–Jean Jaures–and now in those of the most learned of pedants, Karl Kautsky.”
Generalizing from this, Trotsky went on to speak about the “unpitying civil war that is unfolding the world over.” He believed that the world was entering an era in which “political struggle is rapidly turning into civil war” between “two forces: the revolutionary proletariat under the leadership of the Communists, and counterrevolutionary democracy headed by generals and admirals.” There was a double error of perspective at work here. On the one hand, subsequent events demonstrated that the desire for representative democracy and its realization was a worldwide phenomenon, reaching even the U.S.S.R. in 1991. On the other hand, Trotsky, like Lenin, had a strong tendency to develop general conclusions based on the Russian experience, which in any case was often exaggerated in his interpretation. The Bolsheviks were convinced that once the civil war had begun in Russia–largely because of their own efforts–it would spread to Europe and the rest of the world. These two major errors would serve as the justification for Soviet terror for decades to come.
Trotsky drew definitive conclusions from these premises: “It could, and must, be explained that in the civil war we destroyed White Guards so that they would not destroy the workers. Consequently, our problem is not the destruction of human life, but its preservation . . . .The enemy must be made harmless, and in wartime this means that he must be destroyed. The problem of revolution, as of war, lies in breaking the will of the foe, forcing him to capitulate and to accept the conditions of the conqueror . . . The question about who will rule the country–that is, about the life or death of the bourgeoisie–will be decided on either side not by reference to the paragraphs of the constitution, but by the employment of all forms of violence.”
Trotsky’s rhetoric uses many of the same expressions that are found in Ludendorff’s explanation of the concept of total war. The Bolsheviks, who believed themselves to be such great innovators, were in fact very much a product of their time and of the highly militarized atmosphere that surrounded them.
Trotsky’s remarks about freedom of the press demonstrate the pervasiveness of a war mentality: “During war all institutions and organs of the state and of public opinion become, directly or indirectly, weapons of war. This is particularly true of the press. No government waging a serious war will allow publications to exist on its territory that, openly or indirectly, support the enemy. Still more so in a civil war. The nature of the latter is such that each of the struggling sides has in the rear of its armies considerable circles of the population who support the enemy. In war, where both success and failure are repaid by death, hostile agents who penetrate into the rear are subject to execution. This is inhumane, but no one ever considered war–or, all the more, civil war–to be a school of humanity.”
The Bolsheviks were not the only group implicated in the civil war that broke out in Russia in the spring and summer of 1918, beginning a four-year-long orgy of killing by all sides, with people crucified, impaled, cut into pieces, and burned alive. But they were the only group to theorize civil war, and to seek it openly. Under the joint influence of their doctrine and the new modes of behavior created by the world war, civil war became for them a permanent form of political struggle. The civil war between Whites and Reds hid a different war of far greater significance: the war of the Reds against the majority of the working population and a large part of the peasantry, who after the summer of 1918 began to rebel against the Bolshevik yoke. The war was not a traditional confrontation between two opposing political groups, but a conflict between the government and the majority of the population. Under Stalin, the war put the Party-state in opposition to society as a whole. This was a new phenomenon, which could exist only because of the ability of the totalitarian system, backed by mass terror, to control all spheres of activity in society.
Recent studies based on the newly opened archives show that the “dirty war” (the expression is taken from Nicolas Werth) of 1918-1921 was the founding moment of the Soviet regime, the crucible in which the people who would develop and continue the revolution were formed. It was an infernal caldron in which the mentality peculiar to Leninism and Stalinism originated, with its unique melange of idealist exaltation, cynicism, and inhuman cruelty. The Bolsheviks hoped that the civil war would spread across the country and throughout the world and would last as long as it took for socialism to conquer the planet. The war installed cruelty as the normal means by which people were to relate to one another. It broke down traditional barriers of restraint, replacing them with absolute, fundamental violence.
From the earliest days of the Bolshevik Revolution, the issues raised by Kautsky were a thorn in the side of the revolutionaries. Isaac Steinberg, a left Socialist Revolutionary allied to the Bolsheviks, who was the people’s commissar for justice from December 1917 to May 1918, spoke in 1923 about a “methodical system of state terror” used by the Bolsheviks. He posed the central question about the limits of violence in the revolution: “The overturning of the old world, and its replacement by a new life in which the same old evils are kept in place, a life that is contaminated by the same old principles, means that socialism is forced to make a crucial choice during the decisive struggle about whether to use the old-fashioned violence of the tsars and the bourgeoisie, or to resort instead to revolutionary violence. . . Old-fashioned violence is merely a protection against slavery, while the new violence is the painful path toward emancipation . . . That is what should be decisive in our choice: We should take violence into our own hands to be sure that we bring about the end of violence. For there is no other means of fighting against it. Such is the gaping moral wound of the revolution. Therein lies the central paradox, the contradiction that will be the inevitable source of much conflict and suffering.”
He added: “Like terror, violence (considered both as a means of constraint and as deception) will always contaminate the soul of the conquered first, before affecting the victor and the rest of society.”
Steinberg was well aware that this experiment represented a huge risk for “universal morals” and “natural law.” Gorky clearly felt the same way when he wrote to the French novelist Romain Rolland on 21 April 1923: “I have not the slightest desire to return to Russia. I would not be able to write a thing if I had to spend the whole time returning to the theme of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ time and again.” The scruples of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries and the last concerns of the Bolsheviks themselves were all swept away by Lenin’s and Stalin’s enthusiasm. On 2 November 1930 Gorky, who had just aligned himself with the “genius leader” himself, again wrote to Romain Rolland: “It seems to me, Rolland, that you would judge events inside the Soviet Union more evenhandedly if you admitted one simple fact: that the Soviet regime, together with the avant-garde of the workers, is locked in a civil war, which takes the form of a class war. The enemies they fight–and must fight–are the intelligentsia, who are desperately attempting to bring back the bourgeois regime, and the rich peasants, who are desperate to look after their own interests in the traditional capitalist manner and are preventing the advance of collectivization. They are also using terror, killing collectivists, burning collective goods, and the like. War is all about killing.
Russia then entered a third revolutionary phase, which until 1953 was incarnated in Stalin. It was characterized by widespread terror, which found its strongest expression in the Great Purge of 1937 and 1938. Thereafter Stalin found ever more groups to eliminate, targeting not only society as a whole, but also the state and Party apparatus. This terror had no need of the exceptional circumstances of a war to start it rolling; it came about in a time of peace.
Hitler rarely played a personal role in repression, leaving these ignoble tasks to trusted subordinates such as Himmler. By contrast, Stalin always took a strong personal interest in such matters and played a central role in the process. He personally signed lists of thousands of names of people to be shot and forced other members of the Politburo to do the same. During the Great Terror, in fourteen months of 1937 and 1938, 1.8 million people were arrested in forty-two huge, minutely prepared operations. Nearly 690,000 of them were killed. The climate of civil war varied considerably, but it remained a fixture of everyday life. The expression “class war,” often used in place of “class struggle,” had nothing metaphorical about it. The political enemy was not a named opponent or even an enemy class: it was society as a whole.
It was inevitable that the terror, whose aim was the destruction of society, would ultimately, in a process of contagion, reach the counter-society formed by the Party itself. Although it is true that under Lenin, beginning in 1921, anyone who deviated from the Party line suffered punishment, the main enemies had always been people who were not actually Party members. Under Stalin, Party members themselves became potential enemies. The Kirov assassination provided Stalin with the excuse he needed to begin applying capital punishment inside the Party. In doing so he moved closer to Nechaev, whom Bakunin had addressed at the time of their break with the following warning: “The basis of our activity should be simple ideals like truth, honesty, and trust among revolutionary brothers. Lying, cheating, mystification, and–of necessity–violence should be employed only against the enemy. . . Whereas you, my friend–and this is where you are most gravely mistaken–you have fallen under the spell of the systems of Loyola and Machiavelli. . . You are enamored of police tactics and jesuitical methods, and you are using such ideas to run your organization. . . so you end up treating your own friends as though they were enemies.”
Under Stalin, the executioners eventually became victims. Bukharin, after the execution of his old Party comrades Zinoviev and Kamenev, publicly declared: “I am so happy that they have been shot like dogs.” Less than two years later, Bukharin himself was shot like a dog. This characteristic of Stalinism was to become widespread in Communist states throughout the world.
Before exterminating his enemies, Stalin had them displayed in public in a show-trial. Lenin had introduced this strategy in 1922, with the show-trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Stalin merely improved on the formula and made it a permanent feature of his apparatus of repression, applying it widely in Eastern Europe after 1948.
Annie Kriegel has shown how these trials served as a terrible mechanism of social cleansing and how, in an atheist state, the trials came to replace the hell that religion had traditionally promised. They also served to reinforce class hatred and publicly to stigmatize the enemy. Asian Communism took this procedure to its logical extreme, going so far as to organize “hate days.”
Stalin added mystery to the pedagogy of hatred: total secrecy shrouded the arrests, sentences, and fates of the victims. Mystery and secrecy, closely linked to terror, brought terrible anguish to the entire population.
Considering themselves to be at war, the Bolsheviks installed a vocabulary of “the enemy” such as “enemy agents” and “populations lending support to the enemy.” In accordance with the war model, politics reverted to simplistic terms. The binary “friend/foe” opposition was applied across the board as part of a relentless “us versus them” mentality and the military term “camp” turned up repeatedly: the revolutionary camp was opposed to the counterrevolutionary camp. Everyone was forced to choose his camp, on pain of death. The Bolsheviks thus returned to an archaic form of politics, destroying fifty years of democracy and bourgeois individualism.
How was the enemy to be defined? Politics was reduced to a civil war in which two opposing forces, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, were in conflict, and the former had to exterminate the latter by any means necessary. The enemy was no longer the ancien regime, the aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, and the military officers, but anyone opposed to Bolshevik policy. Those who expressed opposition were immediately designated “bourgeois” and treated accordingly. To the Bolshevik mind, an “enemy” was anyone, regardless of social category, who presented an obstacle to the Bolsheviks’ absolute power. This phenomenon appeared immediately, even earlier than terror, in the electoral assemblies of the Soviets. Kautsky foresaw this development when he wrote in 1918 that the only people allowed to elect deputies to the Soviets were to be those “who procure their sustenance by useful or productive work.” What is “useful and productive work”? This is a very elastic term. No less elastic is the definition of those who are excluded from the franchise. They include any who employ wage laborers for profit. . . One sees how little it takes, according to the Constitution of the Soviet Republic, to be labeled a capitalist, and to lose the vote. The elasticity of the definition of the franchise, which opens the door to the greatest arbitrariness, is due to the subject of this definition, and not to its framers. A juridical definition of the proletariat that is distinct and precise is impossible to formulate.”
The word “proletarian” played the same role here that the term “patriot” had for Robespierre. “Enemy” was also a totally elastic category that expanded or contracted to meet the political needs of the moment, becoming a key element in Communist thought and practice. As Tzvetan Todorov put it, “The enemy is the great justification for terror, and the totalitarian state needs enemies to survive. If it lacks them, it invents them. Once they have been identified, they are treated without mercy. . . . Being an enemy is a hereditary stain that cannot be removed . . . . As has often been pointed out, Jews are persecuted not for what they have done but for what they are, and Communism is no different. It demands the repression (or in moments of crisis, the elimination) of the bourgeoisie as a class. Belonging to the class is enough: there is no need actually to have done anything at all.”
One essential question remains: Why should the enemy be exterminated? The traditional role of repression, in Foucault’s terminology, is to “discipline and punish.” Was the time of discipline and punishment over? Had class enemies become “unredeemable”? Solzhenitsyn provides one response by showing that in the Gulag common criminals were systematically treated better than political prisoners. This was the case not solely for practical reasons–that they helped run the camps–but also for theoretical reasons. One of the aims of the Soviet regime was to build new men, and doing this implied the reeducation of the most hardened criminals. It was also a key propaganda issue in the Soviet Union under Stalin, as well as in China under Mao and in Cuba under Castro.
But why should the enemy be killed? The identification of enemies has always played an important role in politics. Even the gospel says: “He who is not with me is against me.” What was new was Lenin’s insistence not only that those not with him were against him, but also that those who were against him were to die. Furthermore, he extended this principle outside the domain of politics into the wider sphere of society as a whole.
Terror involves a double mutation. The adversary is first labeled an enemy, and then declared a criminal, which leads to his exclusion from society. Exclusion very quickly turns into extermination. The friend/foe dialectic no longer suffices to solve the fundamental problem of totalitarianism: the search for a reunified humanity that is purified and no longer antagonistic, conducted through the messianic dimension of the Marxist project to reunify humanity via the proletariat. That ideal is used to prop up a forcible unification–of the Party, of society, of the entire empire–and to weed out anyone who fails to fit into the new world. After a relatively short period, society passes from the logic of political struggle to the process of exclusion, then to the ideology of elimination, and finally to the extermination of impure elements. At the end of the line, there are crimes against humanity.
The attitude of Communists in Asia–in China and Vietnam–was sometimes a little different. Because of the Confucian tradition, greater allowance was made for the possibility of reeducation. The Chineselaogai was run on the expectation that prisoners–described as “students” or “pupils”–would reform their thinking under the instruction of their guard-teachers. But in the final analysis such thinking was even more hypocritical than straightforward assassination. Forcing one’s enemies to change their ways and submit to the discourse of their executioners might well be worse than simply killing them. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, from the outset adopted a radical policy. Believing that the reeducation of an entire section of the population was an impossible task (since these enemies were already too corrupt), they sought to change the people. To this end, they carried out a massive extermination of intellectuals and the urban population, seeking to destroy their enemies psychologically by breaking up their personalities and by imposing on them a constant process of self-criticism, which forced them to suffer acute dishonor while still in all likelihood being subject to the supreme punishment.
The leaders of totalitarian regimes saw themselves as the moral guardians of society and were proud of their right to send anyone they chose to his death. The fundamental justification was always the same: necessity with a scientific basis. Tzvetan Todorov, reflecting on the origins of totalitarianism, writes: “It was scientism and not humanism that helped establish the ideological bases of totalitarianism . . . The relation between scientism and totalitarianism is not limited to the justification of acts through so-called scientific necessity (biological or historical): one must already be a practitioner of scientism, even if it is ‘wild’ scientism, to believe in the perfect transparency of society and thus in the possibility of transforming society by revolutionary means to conform with an ideal.”
Trotsky provided a clear illustration of this “scientific” approach in 1919. In his Defense of Terrorism he claimed: “The violent revolution has become a necessity precisely because the imminent requirements of history are unable to find a road through the apparatus of parliamentary democracy.” In support of this claim he advanced “proofs”: “The proletariat is the historically rising class . . . The bourgeoisie [by contrast] today is a falling class. It no longer plays an essential part in production and by its imperialist methods of appropriation is destroying the economic structure of the world and human culture generally. Nevertheless, the historical tenacity of the bourgeoisie is colossal. It holds to power, and does not wish to abandon it. It thereby threatens to drag after it into the abyss the whole of society. We are forced to tear off this class and chop it away. The Red Terror is a weapon used against a class that, despite being doomed to destruction, does not wish to perish.”
Trotsky thereby made history into a divine force to which everything must be sacrificed, and he displayed the incurable naïveté of a revolutionary who imagines that a more just and humane society will emerge out of a dialectical process, despite the criminal nature of the methods employed. Twelve years later, Gorky was considerably more brutal: “Against us is a whole outmoded society that has had its day, and that should allow us to think of ourselves as still being in a civil war. So quite naturally we can conclude that if the enemies do not surrender, it is up to us to exterminate them.” That same year found Aragon writing lines of poetry such as “The blue eyes of the Revolution burn with cruel necessity.”
Unlike these writers, Kautsky in 1918 faced the issue squarely, with courage and honesty. Refusing to be taken in by the revolutionary rhetoric, he wrote: “To be exact, however, our goal is not socialism as such, which is the abolition of every kind of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race . . . Should it be proved to us that . . . somehow the emancipation of the proletariat and of humanity could be achieved solely on the basis of private property, we would discard socialism without in any way giving up our objective. On the contrary, this would be conducive to our objective.” Kautsky, though one of the most eminent advocates of Marxism, put his humanism before his Marxist belief in science.
Putting people to death required a certain amount of study. Relatively few people actively desire the death of their fellow human beings, so a method of facilitating this had to be found. The most effective means was the denial of the victim’s humanity through a process of dehumanization. As Alain Brossat notes: “The barbarian ritual of the purge, and the idea of the extermination machine in top gear are closely linked in the discourse and practice of persecution to the animalization of the Other, to the reduction of real or imaginary enemies to a zoological state.”
There were many examples of this process. During the great trials in Moscow, the procurator Andrei Vyshinsky, who was an intellectual with a traditional classical training, threw himself into a veritable frenzy of animalization: “Shoot these rabid dogs! Death to this gang who hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! Down with that vulture Trotsky, from whose mouth a bloody venom drips, putrefying the great ideals of Marxism! Let’s put these liars out of harm’s way, these miserable pygmies who dance around rotting carcasses! Down with these abject animals! Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses! Let their horrible squeals finally come to an end! Let’s exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism, who want to tear to pieces the flower of our new Soviet nation! Let’s push the bestial hatred they bear our leaders back down their own throats!”
Jean-Paul Sartre also crudely remarked in 1952 that “any anti-Communist is a dog!” This demonizing animal rhetoric seems to support Annie Kriegel’s remarks about the public instructive function of the rigged show-trials. As in medieval mystery plays, everything was arranged so that the good people were in no doubt about the real identity of the bad Trotskyite heretics or “cosmopolitan Zionists”: they represented the devil incarnate.
Alain Brossat recalls that European shivarees and carnivals had begun a long tradition of the animalization of the other, which resurfaced in the political caricatures of the eighteenth century. This metaphoric rite allowed all sorts of hidden crises and latent conflicts to be expressed. In Moscow in the 1930s, there were no metaphors at all. The animalized adversary really was treated like a prey to be hunted, before being shot in the head. Stalin systematized these methods and was the first to use them on a large scale, and they were adopted by his heirs in Cambodia, China, and elsewhere. But Stalin himself did not invent these methods. The blame should probably rest on Lenin’s shoulders. After he took power, he often described his enemies as “harmful insects,” “lice,” “scorpions,” and “bloodsuckers.”
During the rigged spectacle known as the “Industrial Party trial,” the League for the Rights of Man sent a protest petition signed by, among others, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Gorky responded with an open letter: “In my opinion the execution was entirely legitimate. It is quite natural that a worker-and-peasant regime should stamp out its enemies like lice.”
Brossat draws the following conclusions about this process of animalization: “As always, the poets and butchers of totalitarianism reveal themselves first of all by the vocabulary they use. The ‘liquidation’ of the Muscovite executioners, a close relative of the ‘treatment’ carried out by the Nazi assassins, is a linguistic microcosm of an irreparable mental and cultural catastrophe that was in full view on the Soviet stage. The value of human life collapsed, and thinking in categories (‘enemies of the people,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘untrustworthy elements,’ etc.) replaced ethical thought. . . In the discourse and practice of the Nazi exterminators, the animalization of the Other, which could not be dissociated from the obsession with cleanliness and contagion, was closely linked to the ideology of race. It was conceived in the implacably hierarchical racial terms of subhumansand supermen . . . but in Moscow in 1937, the discourse about race and the totalitarian measures associated with it were quite different. What mattered instead was the total animalization of the Other, so that a policy under which absolutely anything was possible could come into practice.”
Some, however, did not hesitate to cross the ideological barrier and move from social to racial concerns. In a 1932 letter, Gorky (who it should be remembered was a personal friend of Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the GPU, an organization for which his son also worked) wrote: “Class hatred should be cultivated by an organic revulsion as far as the enemy is concerned. Enemies must be seen as inferior. I believe quite profoundly that the enemy is our inferior, and is a degenerate not only on the physical plane but also in the moral sense.”
Taking these ideas to their logical extreme, he favored the creation of the U.S.S.R. Institute of Experimental Medicine. Early in 1933, he wrote that “the time is nearing when science will imperiously address normal people and say, would you like all diseases, handicaps, imperfections, senility, and premature death of the organism to be studied minutely and precisely? Such study cannot be carried out solely with experiments on dogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Experiments on human beings are indispensable, for what must be studied are the human mechanisms of the functioning of the organism, intracellular processes, hematopoiesis, neurochemistry, and all the processes that go on inside the organism. Hundreds of human guinea pigs are required. This will be a true service to humanity, which will be far more important and useful than the extermination of tens of millions of healthy beings for the comfort of a miserable, physically, psychologically, and morally degenerate class of predators and parasites.”
The worst aspects of sociohistorical scientism thus rejoined those of biological scientism.
This biological or zoological strain of thinking enables us to understand better why so many of the crimes of Communism were crimes against humanity, and how Marxist-Leninist ideology managed to justify these crimes to its followers. Considering legal decisions about recent discoveries in biology, Bruno Gravier writes: “Legal texts about bioethics. . . act as signposts about some of the more insidious threats linked to the progress of science, whose role in the birth of ideologies linked to terror (J. Asher’s ‘law of the movement’) has yet to be fully recognized. The fundamentally eugenic thrust of work by well-known doctors such as [Charles] Richet and [Alexis] Carrel clearly paved the way for Nazi extermination and the wayward actions of Nazi doctors.”
In Communism there exists a sociopolitical eugenics, a form of social Darwinism. In the words of Dominic Colas, “As master of the knowledge of the evolution of social species, Lenin decided who should disappear by virtue of having been condemned to the dustbin of history.” From the moment that a decision had been made on a “scientific” basis (that is, based in political and historical ideology, as well as in Marxism-Leninism) that the bourgeoisie represented a stage of humanity that had been surpassed, its liquidation as a class and the liquidation of the individuals who actually or supposedly belonged to it could be justified.
Marcel Cohn, speaking of Nazism, refers to “classifications, segregation, exclusions, and purely biological criteria that are brought in by this criminal ideology. We are thinking of scientific ideas (heredity, hybridization, racial purity) and the fantastic, millenarian, or apocalyptic aspects that are clearly also the product of a particular historical moment.” The application of scientific presuppositions to history and society–such as the idea that the proletariat is the bearer of the meaning of history–is easily traceable to a millenarian cosmological phantasmagoria, and is omnipresent in the Communist experience. It is these presuppositions that lie behind so much of the criminal ideology in which purely ideological categories determine arbitrary separations, like the division of humanity into bourgeoisie and proletariat, and into classifications such as petit- and grand-bourgeois or rich or poor peasant. By reifying these categories, as though they had long existed and were, utterly immutable, Marxism-Leninism deified the system itself, so that categories and abstractions were far more important than any human reality. Individuals and groups were seen as the archetypes of some sort of primary, disembodied sociology. This made crime much easier: The informer, the torturer, and the NKVD executioner did not denounce, cause suffering, or kill people; they merely eliminated some sort of abstraction that was not beneficial to the common good.
The doctrine became a criminal ideology by the simple act of denying a fundamental fact: the unity of what Robert Antelme calls the “human species,” or what the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights described in 1948 as “the human family.” The roots of Marxist-Leninism are perhaps not to be found in Marx at all, but in a deviant version of Darwinism, applied to social questions with the same catastrophic results that occur when such ideas are applied to racial issues. One thing is certain: Crimes against humanity are the product of an ideology that reduces people not to a universal but to a particular condition, be it biological, racial, or sociohistorical. By means of propaganda, the Communists succeeded in making people believe that their conduct had universal implications, relevant to humanity as a whole. Critics have often tried to make a distinction between Nazism and Communism by arguing that the Nazi project had a particular aim, which was nationalist and racist in the extreme, whereas Lenin’s project was universal. This is entirely wrong. In both theory and practice, Lenin and his successors excluded from humanity all capitalists, the bourgeoisie, counterrevolutionaries, and others, turning them into absolute enemies in their sociological and political discourse. Kautsky noted as early as 1918 that these terms were entirely elastic, allowing those in power to exclude whomever they wanted from humanity whenever they so wished. These were the terms that led directly to crimes against humanity.
In discussing biologists such as Henri Atlan, who “recognize that the notion of humanity extends beyond the biological approach, and that biology ‘has little to say about the human person,'” Mireille Delmas-Marty concedes: “It is true that it is perfectly possible to consider the human species an animal species like any other, a species that man is learning to make himself, as he already makes other animal and vegetable species.” But is this not in fact what Communism tried to do? Is the idea of a “new man” not at the heart of the Communist project? Did Communism not have a series of megalomaniacs such as Trofim Lysenko who tried to create not merely new species of tomato or corn but also a new human species?
The scientific mentality of the late nineteenth century, which emerged at the time of the triumph of medicine, inspired the following remarks by Vasily Grossman concerning the Bolshevik leaders: “This sort of person behaves among other people as a surgeon does in the wards of a hospital. . . His soul is really in his knife. And the essence of these people lies in their fanatical faith in the surgeon’s knife. The surgeon’s knife–that is the great theoretician, the archphilosopher of the twentieth century.” The idea was taken to its furthest extreme by Pol Pot, who with a terrifying stroke of the knife excised the gangrenous part of the social body–the “New People”–while retaining the “healthy” peasant part. As insane as this idea was, it was not exactly new. Already in the 1870s, Pyotr Tkachev, a Russian revolutionary and worthy heir of Nechaev, proposed the extermination of all Russians over twenty-five years old, whom he considered incapable of carrying out his revolutionary ideal. In a letter to Nechaev, Bakunin objected to this insane idea: “Our people are not a blank sheet of paper on which any secret society can write whatever it wants, like your Communist program, for instance.” The International demanded that the slate of the past be wiped clean, and Mao famously compared himself to a poetic genius writing on a blank sheet of paper, as though he genuinely believed that thousands of years of history could simply be ignored.
Most of the mechanisms of terror discussed above originated in the U.S.S.R. under Lenin and Stalin, but some of their features are to be found, with differing degrees of intensity, in all regimes claiming to be Marxist in origin. Every Communist country or Party has its own specific history and its own particular regional and local variations, but a linkage can always be traced to the pattern elaborated in Moscow in November 1917. This linkage forms a sort of genetic code of Communism.
How can we possibly understand the people who took part in this terrifying system? Did they have specific psychological features? Every totalitarian regime seems to find a segment of the population that has a special calling for such behavior, and it actively seeks them out and promotes them within its ranks. Stalin’s own case is representative. In terms of strategy, he was a worthy heir of Lenin, capable of expediting business with ease on either a local or a global scale. To the eyes of history he might well appear as one of the great men of the century, transforming the weak Soviet Union of 1922 into one of the two world superpowers, and for decades causing Communism to appear to be the only real alternative to capitalism.
But he was also one of the greatest criminals in a century in which great criminals have been all too easy to find. As far back as 1953 Boris Suvarin and Boris Nikolaevsky labeled Stalin the century’s Caligula, and Trotsky always believed that he was a paranoid maniac. But, more than that, Stalin was an extraordinary fanatic with a particular talent for politics, and a man with no belief in democracy. Stalin was the logical result of the movement begun by Lenin and dreamed of by Nechaev: a man using extremist means to implement extremist policies.
The fact that Stalin so deliberately engaged in crimes against humanity as a means of governance returns us to the specifically Russian aspects of his personality. A native of the Caucasus, he was surrounded during his childhood and adolescence by tales of brigands with hearts of gold, and of abreks, mountain dwellers who had been expelled from their clan or who had solemnly sworn bloody vengeance–stories, in short, of men filled with despairing courage. He used the pseudonym Koba, which was the name of one such mythical brigand prince, a local Robin Hood figure who came to the assistance of widows and orphans. Bakunin, in his letter disavowing Nechaev, wrote: “Do you remember how angry with me you became when I called you an abrek, and described your beliefs as a sort of abreki catechism? You said that all men should be made so, and that the abandonment of the self and the renunciation of personal needs and desires, all feelings, attachments, and links should be a normal state, the everyday condition of all humanity. Out of that cruel renunciation and extreme fanaticism you now want to make a general principle applicable to the whole community. You want crazy things, impossible things, the total negation of nature, man, and society!”
Despite his total commitment to the ideal, as early as 1870 Bakunin had understood that even revolutionary action had to submit itself to a number of fundamental moral constraints.
Communist terror has often been compared to the great Catholic Inquisition. Here novelists are probably of more use than historians. In his magnificent novel La tunique d’infamie, Michel del Castillo remarks: “The purpose is not to torture or to burn the victim: the aim is to ask the right question. No terror without truth, which is its foundation. Without truth, how can error be recognized? . . . If one is certain that one possesses the truth, how can one leave one’s neighbor in error?”
The Church promised the remission of original sin, and salvation or eternal damnation in another world. Marx had a redemptive belief in the Promethean destiny of mankind. This was the messianic dream of the Great Evening. But for Leszek Kolakowski, “the idea that the world we see is so totally corrupt that it is beyond improvement, and that accordingly the world that will follow will bring plenitude, perfection, and ultimate liberation is one of the most monstrous aberrations of the human spirit. . . Of course this aberration is not an invention of our own time, but we should recognize that religious thought, which opposes all temporal values to the force of supernatural grace, is much less abominable than doctrines that tell us we can assure our salvation by jumping from the edge of the abyss to the glorious heights of the heavens.”
Ernest Renan was probably quite correct when he claimed in his Philosophical Dialogues that the sure way to guarantee oneself absolute power in an atheist society was not to threaten people with some mythological inferno, but to institute a real hell–a concentration camp to punish insurgents and to frighten all others, with a special police force made up of beings devoid of conscience and entirely devoted to the government in power–“obedient machines, unencumbered by moral scruples and prepared for every sort of cruelty.”
After the liberation of most of the prisoners in the Gulag in 1953, and even after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, when some forms of terror seemed to have disappeared, the principle of terror retained its function and continued to be extremely effective. The memory of the terror lived on and paralyzed people’s wills, as Aino Kuusinen recalled: “The memory of the terror weighed on people’s minds; no one could believe that Stalin had really gone for good. There was scarcely a family in Moscow that had not suffered in some way from persecution, yet no one ever talked about it. I, for instance, would never talk about my experiences in the camps in front of my friends. And they never asked about it. The fear was too deep-rooted in everyone’s minds.” If the victims carried their memories of the terror wherever they went, their executioners were just as dependent on those memories. In the middle of the Brezhnev period, the Soviet Union brought out a postage stamp to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cheka, and published a book in homage to its memory.
In conclusion, the last word should go to Gorky and his homage to Lenin in 1924: “One of my old friends, a worker from Sormov, a kind-hearted man, complained that it was hard to work for the Cheka. I answered him: ‘It seems to me that it’s not for you. It’s just not in your character.’ He agreed, sadly. ‘No, not at all.’ But after thinking for a moment, he added, ‘But when I think about it, I’m sure Ilich often also has to hold his soul back by its wings and that makes me ashamed of my weakness’ . . . Did Lenin really have to ‘hold his soul back by its wings’? He paid so little attention to himself that he never talked about himself with others; he was better than anyone at never revealing the storms that blew inside his mind. But he told me once as he was stroking some children, ‘Their lives will be better than ours: they’ll be spared many of the things we have been forced to live through. Their lives will be less cruel.’ He stared off into the distance, and added dreamily: ‘Mind you, I don’t envy them. Our generation will have carried out a task of tremendous historical importance. The cruelty of our lives, imposed by circumstances, will be understood and pardoned. Everything will be understood, everything!'”We are beginning to understand it, but not quite in the manner that Lenin imagined. What remains today of this “task of tremendous historical importance”? Not the illusory “building of socialism,” but an immense tragedy that still weighs on the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and that will mark the entry into the third millennium. Vasily Grossman, the war correspondent from Stalingrad, the writer who saw the manuscript of his magnum opus confiscated by the KGB and who died a broken man as a result, still drew an optimistic lesson from his experiences that is well worth repeating: “Our century is the century of the greatest violence ever committed against human beings by the state. But it is precisely here that the strength and hope of humanity lie. It is the twentieth century that has at last shaken the Hegelian concept of the historical process whereby ‘everything real is rational.’ It was this concept, violently debated for decades, that Russian thinkers of the past century finally accepted. But now, at the height of the state’s triumph over individual freedom, Russian thinkers wearing padded camp jackets have dethroned and cast down the old Hegelian law and proclaimed their new, supreme, guiding principle of world history: ‘Everything inhuman is senseless and worthless’ . . . Amid the total triumph of inhumanity, it has become self-evident that everything effected by violence is senseless and worthless, and that it has no future and will disappear without a trace.”