Leon Trotsky

The Bankruptcy of Individual Terrorism


Originally transcribed for the Philosophy/History Archive, which is now the Philosophy Section of the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
It was mirrored here with permission.
Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan, November 2006.

For a whole month, the attention of everyone who was able to read and reflect at all, both in Russia and throughout the world, has been focused on Azef. His ‘case’ is known to one and all from the legal newspapers and from accounts of the Duma debates over the demand raised by Duma deputies for an interpellation about Azef.

Now Azef has had time to recede into the background. His name appears less and less frequently in the newspapers. However, before once and for all leaving Azef to the garbage heap of history, we think it necessary to sum up the main political lessons – not as regards the machinations of the Azef types per se, but with regard to terrorism as a whole, and to the attitude held toward it by the main political parties in the country.

Individual terror as a method for political revolution is our Russian ‘national’ contribution.

Of course, the killing of ‘tyrants’ is almost as old as the institution of ‘tyranny’ itself; and poets of all centuries have composed more than a few hymns in honour of the liberating dagger.

But systematic terror, taking as its task the elimination of satrap after satrap, minister after minister, monarch after monarch – ‘Sashka after Sashka’ (a diminutive referring to the two tsars Alexander II and III), as an 1880s Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will) member familiarly formulated the programme for terror – this kind of terror, adjusting itself to absolutism’s bureaucratic hierarchy and creating its own revolutionary bureaucracy, is the product of the unique creative powers of the Russian intelligentsia.

Of course, there must be deep-seated reasons for this – and we should seek them, first, in the nature of the Russian autocracy and, second, in the nature of the Russian intelligentsia.

Before the very idea of destroying absolutism by mechanical means could acquire popularity, the state apparatus had to be seen as a purely external organ of coercion, having no roots in the social organisation itself. And this is precisely how the Russian autocracy appeared to the revolutionary intelligentsia.

Historical basis of Russian terrorism

This illusion had its own historical basis. Tsarism took shape under the pressure of the more culturally advanced states of the West. In order to hold its own in competition, it had to bleed the popular masses dry, and in doing so it cut the economic ground from under the feet of even the most privileged classes. And these classes were not able to raise themselves to the high political level attained by the privileged classes in the West.

To this, in the nineteenth century, was added the powerful pressure of the European stock exchange. The greater the sums it loaned to the tsarist regime, the less tsarism depended directly upon the economic relations within the country.

By means of European capital, it armed itself with European military technology, and it thus grew into a “self-sufficient”(in a relative sense, of course) organisation, elevating itself above all classes of society.

Such a situation could naturally give rise to the idea of blasting this extraneous superstructure into the air with dynamite.

The intelligentsia had developed under the direct and immediate pressure of the West; like their enemy, the state, they rushed ahead of the country’s level of economic development – the state, technologically; the intelligentsia, ideologically.

Whereas in the older bourgeois societies of Europe revolutionary ideas developed more or less parallel with the development of the broad revolutionary forces, in Russia the intelligentsia gained access to the ready-made cultural and political ideas of the West and had their thinking revolutionised before the economic development of the country had given birth to serious revolutionary classes from which they could get support.

Outdated by history

Under these conditions, nothing remained for the intelligentsia but to multiply their revolutionary enthusiasm by the explosive force of nitro-glycerin. So arose the classical terrorism of Narodnaya Volya.

The terror of the Social Revolutionaries was by and large a product of those same historical factors: the “self-sufficient”despotism of the Russian state, on the one hand, and the “self-sufficient”Russian revolutionary intelligentsia on the other.

But two decades did not go by without having some effect, and by the time the terrorists of the second wave appear, they do so as epigones, marked with the stamp “outdated by history.”

The epoch of capitalist “Sturm und Drang”(storm and stress) of the 1880s and 1890s produced and consolidated a large industrial proletariat, making serious inroads into the economic isolation of the countryside and linking it more closely with the factory and the city.

Behind the Narodnaya Volya, there really was no revolutionary class. The Social Revolutionaries simply did not want to see the revolutionary proletariat; at least they were not able to appreciate its full historical significance.

Of course, one can easily collect a dozen odd quotations from Social Revolutionary literature stating that they pose terror not instead of the mass struggle but together with it. But these quotations bear witness only to the struggle the ideologists of terror have had to conduct against the Marxists – the theoreticians of mass struggle.

But this does not change matters. By its very essence terrorist work demands such concentrated energy for “the great moment,” such an overestimation of the significance of individual heroism, and finally, such a “hermetic” conspiracy, that – if not logically, then psychologically – it totally excludes agitational and organisational work among the masses.

For terrorists, in the entire field of politics there exist only two central focuses: the government and the Combat Organisation. “The government is ready to temporarily reconcile itself to the existence of all other currents,” Gershuni (a founder of the Combat Organisation of the SRs) wrote to his comrades at a time when he was facing the death sentence, “but it has decided to direct all its blows towards crushing the Social Revolutionary Party.”

“I sincerely trust,”said Kalayev (another SR terrorist) writing at a similar moment, “that our generation, headed by the Combat Organisation, will do away with the autocracy.”

Everything that is outside the framework of terror is only the setting for the struggle; at best, an auxiliary means. In the blinding flash of exploding bombs, the contours of political parties and the dividing lines of the class struggle disappear without a trace.

And we hear the voice of that greatest of romantics and the best practitioner of the new terrorism, Gershuni, urging his comrades to “avoid a break with not only the ranks of the revolutionaries, but even a break with the opposition parties in general.”

The logic of terrorism

"Not instead of the masses, but together with them.” However, terrorism is too “absolute” a form of struggle to be content with a limited and subordinate role in the party.

Engendered by the absence of a revolutionary class, regenerated later by a lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses, terrorism can maintain itself only by exploiting the weakness and disorganisation of the masses, minimising their conquests, and exaggerating their defeats.

“They see that it is impossible, given the nature of modern armaments, for the popular masses to use pitchforks and cudgels – those age-old weapons of the people – to destroy the Bastilles of modern times,”defence attorney Zhdanov said of the terrorists during the trial of Kalyaev.

“After January 9 (the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre, which marked the start of the 1905 revolution), they saw very well what was involved; and they answered the machine gun and rapid-firing rifle with the revolver and the bomb; such are the barricades of the twentieth century.”

The revolvers of individual heroes instead of the people’s cudgels and pitchforks; bombs instead of barricades – that is the real formula of terrorism.

And no matter what sort of subordinate role terror is relegated to by the “synthetic” theoreticians of the party, it always occupies a special place of honour in fact. And the Combat Organisation, which the official party hierarchy places under the Central Committee, inevitably turns out to be above it, above the party and all its work – until cruel fate places it under the police department.

And that is precisely why the collapse of the Combat Organisation as a result of a police conspiracy inevitably means the political collapse of the party as well.

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Last updated on: 17.12.2006