Sunday, August 26, 2018

Marxism and Terrorism Paperback by Leon Trotsky (Pathfinder Press )

Marxism and Terrorism is a brief collection of excerpts from selected publications and speeches produced by Leon Trotsky from 1909 until 1938. While the material in Marxism and Terrorism is instructive, based largely on concrete examples of early Twentieth Century terrorism, it is useful to bear in mind that Trotsky was an extraordinarily prolific author, a Marxist intellectual and broadly informed scholar who, by the time of his assassination at age fifty, had written thousands of insightfully learned pages and delivered invited addresses to collections of intellectuals, activists, and genuine revolutionaries in a multitude of international venues.

In addition to his astonishingly well informed intellectual activity, Trotsky was a leader of the Russian revolution of October 1917. The story of his creation of the Red Army during two and a half years of frenetic activity marks Trotsky as a charismatic organizational genius, tied closely to workers, peasants, and their home-grown institutions. Trotsky was a tireless and enormously productive political leader, and readers of Marxism and Terrorism should not be misled by its brevity, perhaps incorrectly surmising that Trotsky really said and did little that was original and of revolutionary value. In my view, Trotsky surpassed even Lenin as a revolutionary thinker, leader, and organizational pioneer.

The limited material included in Marxism and Terrorism is quite useful in understanding not only the limitations of terrorism, but how those limitations are determined. In contemporary parlance, terrorists who use instances of violence in an effort to produce social, political, and economic change can be rightly regarded as unwitting instrumentalists. To my knowledge, this concept was never used by Trotsky or anyone else of his generation. Instrumentalism first became conspicuous during the 1980's, especially in the often acrimonious exchanges between Ralph Miliband and Nicos Poulantzas regarding Marxist interpretations of the nature of the state in capitalist societies.

Poulantzas judged Miliband's view to be theoretically weak because it admitted the possibility of creating a functioning socialist state simply by replacing people in high governmental positions such that office holders were favorably disposed toward socialism. To Poulantzas, this meant that ideologically suitable officials could use the existing state apparatus much as if it were an instrument, perhaps like a club or a scalpel, to achieve revolutionary ends. Thus the concept instrumentalism.

Whether or not Miliband's views were as theoretically naive and undeveloped as Poulantzas claimed, the latter scholar's point was that the capitalist state, however it may vary from one capitalist nation to another, was inherently structured in a way that was consistent with the class structure that provided its context. As a result, even the highest office holders taken in the aggregate were limited as to the kinds of changes they could foster. If a social system was organized in a way that best served the interests of the capitalist class rather than labor, no amount of political tinkering would make much difference. Instead, existing institutions had to be replaced, something that necessitated a full-scale working class revolution.

Terrorism, thus, was bound to be ineffective, because assassination of even the highest officials, or destruction of massive organizations would leave a capitalist state and capitalist nation institutionally intact. Writing nearly a century before Miliband and Poulantzas took each other to theoretical task, Trotsky understood the differences between them, and his views long predated Poulantzas' position that social institutions in a capitalist society were inevitably in the service of captial. Only the revolutionary organization of the working class on a massive scale could make for real change toward a socialist society worthy of the name.

So, While Trotsky may have been sympathetic toward the grievances and goals of anarchists and others who resorted to terroristic methods, he rejected terrorism as self-defeating. He would have rejected the notion that, for example, the 9-11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center struck a damaging blow at the heart of American capitalism. Horrible as it was, destruction of the twin towers was in no sense an effective attack on capitalism as a social system with a distinctively organized state. To think otherwise is to succumb to instrumentalism, failing to recognize that the entire capitalist state and American society as a whole, though they may occasion class struggle, best serve the interests of the capitalist class, something that a piecemeal approach such as terrorism, however insidious, brutal, and bloody, cannot change.

Whenever I read something by Trotsky, I wonder what might have happened if he rather than Stalin had succeeded Lenin. Whatever the answer, we can see that, once in power, Stalin used terrorism indiscriminately in a benighted effort to maintain his position. Terrorism is a tool that, in a variety of forms, serves the interests of those on top rather than the less advantaged. The less advantaged are terrorism's most vulnerable victims.

I suppose this is silly and self-indulgent, but the foregoing makes me want to quote Easy Rawlins in White Butterfly (1992:270): "The police could come to your house today and drag you from you bed. They could beat you until you swallow teeth and then lock you in a hole for months." One form of terrorism practiced by and for those in power!

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