Terrorism and Communism (Revolutions): Amazon.co.uk: Leon Trotsky ...

A Review of Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky by Leon Trotsky, with a Preface by H.N. Brailsford and a Foreword by Slavoj Žižek


Harrison Fluss

Department of Philosophy, St John’s University, Jamaica, New York;

Department of Philosophy, Manhattan College, Riverdale, New York



This review looks back at Leon Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, republished by Verso in 2007 with a Foreword by Slavoj Žižek. After providing an overview of Kautsky’s criticisms of the October Revolution and Trotsky’s rebuttal, the historical scholarship of Lars Lih and the philosophical efforts of Žižek are presented to refute the reigning consensus concerning Trotsky’s ‘authoritarianism’ during the civil-war period. Lih and Žižek argue for a new understanding of Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism that challenges us to rethink the arguments and the historical context of the book. Further, this review considers the theoretical limitations of Žižek’s Lacanian interpretation of Trotsky’s legacy and the historical problem of Stalinism.


Žižek – Trotsky – Russian Revolution – War Communism – Lars Lih

Leon Trotsky, (2007) Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, with a Preface by H.N. Brailsford and a Foreword by Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso.

The publication of this book by Verso offers us an opportunity to review Leon Trotsky’s important and controversial work Terrorism and Communism.1 With the new Foreword written by Slavoj Žižek, and the scholarship of Lars Lih, one can finally re-open the historical and political debate concerning Trotsky’s ‘authoritarianism’ under war communism. Here, historical context is crucial, as Žižek and Lih both emphasise the dire circumstances the Bolsheviks faced during the Russian civil war. And this situation was more than dire according to Lih: it was in ‘the highest degree tragic’:

The world war and then the civil war had drained Russia’s resources and ripped apart the interdependent pre-war economic organism, and yet a large military establishment still had to be supported. The transport system was on the verge of utter collapse. Industry had no goods to give the peasants for their grain… Inflation had destroyed the financial system. Disease, hunger, and cold stalked the land. The lives of the workers had gotten worse, not better.2

How did the Bolsheviks react to such devastation? According to Lih, most scholars paint the Bolshevik leadership as having a ‘euphoric’ and ‘delirious’ reaction to the disaster they faced; that it presented them with an authoritarian set of policies they valorised as constituting not only a necessity, but a political advance. Hence, what became known as war communism, i.e. grain-requisition by force, the militarisation of labour, the system of rations, etc., was supposedly presented by Trotsky and others as giving the Russian masses a short-cut into genuine communism.

          The most noticeable target of the academic consensus on the ‘hallucinations’ of the civil-war period is Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky’s war-time polemic. It is a book more prone to misinterpretation, due to the fact of Trotsky’s direct role in the process of transforming society along war-communist lines. However, Lih has performed the necessary philological and historical legwork to demonstrate how the head of the Red Army was not a victim of these ‘destructive fantasies’. Nor did he believe that such coercive policies meant an immediate heralding of the Communist millennium. Instead, Lih relieves Trotsky of the charges of insanity. He shows that the policies advanced were completely contingent upon a national emergency and certainly not to be fetishised by Trotsky as some dystopian vision of what Marx might have called ‘barracks communism’.

          Following the lead of Lih’s scholarship, Žižek tries to continue in a similar direction, in order to break out of the mythology surrounding Trotsky. Throughout his Foreword to Terrorism and Communism, Žižek entertains many ideas and hypotheses to make the Russian Revolution and its aftermath in Stalinism intelligible through Lacanian psychoanalysis. However, while one can appreciate Žižek’s contribution as significant, it might be argued that such a Lacanian reading comes at a theoretical and political cost: of reducing the historical phenomena of Bolshevism, the civil-war period, and Stalinism to an unresolved dialectic between the Lacanian categories of the Symbolic and the Real. We will see how this adaptation of historical phenomena into a metaphysical-psychoanalytic dynamic arguably reifies the problem of Stalinism into an ontological one, thereby occluding its key historical dimensions.

Terrorism and Communism: Context and Arguments

As intimated above, Trotsky wrote his polemic in the heat of the Russian civil war. But Trotsky’s main target in the essay was Karl Kautsky’s book of the same name. Kautsky from the very beginning of the October Revolution expressed misgivings and published the first full-length critique of Bolshevism from a foreign Marxist in his 1918 Die Diktatur des Proletariats. In its contents, Kautsky argues that the material and economic conditions were lacking for socialism in Russia, with the Bolsheviks acting against historical necessity by forcing the Russian proletariat into a situation for which they were not yet ripe. And because the Bolsheviks faced a hostile sea of peasants, while putting all their hopes into a European revolution that failed to materialise, they enforced a restoration of dictatorial methods against the Russian population, through the suppression of democracy and dissent. With the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia gave way to the dictatorship of the Bolshevik party over the rest of the country.3

          A year later, Kautsky went on to write Terrorismus und Kommunismus as an extension of arguments already made, but as a more direct challenge to the Bolshevik state. Towards the end of the study (which is mostly occupied with a historical discussion of the nature of the Paris Commune), Kautsky claims that the Bolsheviks completely threw ‘the Marxist mode of thought overboard’. By perverting the nature of democracy through failing to protect the rights of minorities, and by treating the bourgeoisie itself as a class to be exploited by the state, the Bolsheviks destroyed any pretence of establishing socialism. Instead of socialism, for Kautsky, the Bolsheviks had created a version of ‘state capitalism’, where the party constituted itself as the dominant class over both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.4

Kautsky’s polemics demanded an immediate response from the Bolshevik leadership. Despite Kautsky’s waning reputation after the First World War as the ‘Pope’ of Marxism and German Social Democracy, his criticisms still carried significant weight. Moreover, what seemed like a bookish controversy turned out to have a highly practical value for the Bolshevik leaders that responded. As Trotsky put it in his 1935 preface to the second English edition of Terrorism and Communism:

The book was written as an attack on Karl Kautsky. To the younger generation this name does not mean much… Kautsky at one time wielded a great authority in the ranks of the Second International as the theorist of Marxism.5

Trotsky’s response was threefold: to counter the criticism that the Russian proletariat was not ready for revolution, to mount a critique of Kautsky’s conception of democracy, and to defend Bolshevik methods in waging civil war and reconstructing the country economically. First, Trotsky argues that Kautsky’s basic charge of the lack of material conditions for socialism in Russia fails to grasp the new balance of power established in Europe after the war. For Trotsky, all the old apparatuses, institutions, and political habits of pre-War social democracy failed to register the shifts in and advancements of the productive forces and social struggles, leaving Kautsky and others behind. But it was Kautsky’s attachment to the old equilibriums maintained by parliamentary parties, trade-union leaders, etc., that made it impossible for him to appreciate the new situation that the international proletariat and the Bolsheviks faced. With such a limited model of struggle, Kautsky assumed far too generous a patience from the Russian proletariat, assuming from them a long and gradual struggle to achieve socialism in a timely – and ultimately parliamentary – manner. But, according to Trotsky, the Russian proletariat did not have the luxury of waiting for such ideal circumstances to arrive. Instead, it was driven to revolution through historical necessity:

No one gives the proletariat the opportunity of choosing whether it will or will not mount the horse [of revolution], whether it will take power immediately or postpone the moment. Under certain conditions the working class is bound to take power, under the threat of political self-annihilation for a whole historical period.6

Second, Kautsky had failed to extricate himself from the ‘metaphysics of democracy’, i.e. the metaphysics of parliamentary routine, which teaches ‘the proletariat not to believe in itself, but to believe in its reflection in the crooked mirror of democracy which has been shattered by the jackboot of militarism into a thousand fragments’. The problem of the supremacy of the proletariat for Kautsky is thus not to be accounted for in terms of the international situation, or at the real level of forces between classes, but ‘that [of the] counting of votes which is carried out by the capitalist tellers of parliamentarism’. For Trotsky, the metaphysical conception of democracy subordinates class struggle to a passive registration of votes, and, as he puts it sarcastically, the only problem left to face the proletariat according to this logic is ‘for the ruling imperialist bandits … to deceive, violate, and swindle public opinion, by collecting 51 per cent of the votes against your 49. Perish the world, but long live the parliamentary majority!’7

For Trotsky, there is no place for revolutionary struggle if one accepts the legal fictions of parliamentary democracy, or if one believes that universal suffrage as guaranteed by the constitution actually ‘expresses the will of the citizens of all classes in the nation, and consequently, gives a possibility of attracting a majority to the side of socialism’.8 The real Damascus of proletarian revolution is not gaining a majority of votes in parliament, but smashing the bourgeois state apparatus and founding a new proletarian state.

          However, in favour of parliamentary struggle, Kautsky rejects the political form of the soviets as undemocratic organs of the Bolshevik party. Trotsky counters that it is in the soviets where the proletariat dynamically creates its own power, instead of letting parliamentary deputies represent their interests passively and do the ruling on the majority’s behalf. Trotsky repeats Marx’s idea of the Paris Commune for the soviets: Like the Commune, the soviets are not merely parliamentary bodies which can haphazardly gather the opinion of the country but are institutions that combine within themselves parliamentary and executive power. The soviets do not just ‘statically reflect a majority’: they enable the majority to create its own policies.

          Such parliamentary fetishism – of limiting the scope of the proletariat’s participation through narrow bourgeois channels – posed a particular and imminent danger for the chances of a revolution happening in Germany. It was the prospect of this revolution and the creation of a socialist Germany that the Bolsheviks considered their means of salvation from permanent economic isolation and imperialist encirclement. However, according to Trotsky, Kautsky’s attitudes militated against such a possibility from ever becoming real: Instead of the radicalisation of the German workers’ movement, it suffered becoming ‘a conservative, [and] retarding, force’ for the revolution.9

          Third, to ensure the existence of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, the dictatorship must embrace resolute action and flexible strategies. And in the context of an international class war – in which White Armies and fourteen imperialist nations relentlessly tried to undermine the revolution – the methods of repression and terror were absolutely essential. Therefore, for Trotsky, one cannot take Kautsky seriously as a Marxist in wanting to create socialism if he does not accept the means necessary to defend its existence:

The man who repudiates terrorism in principle – i.e., repudiates measures of suppression and intimidation towards determined and armed counterrevolution – must reject all idea of the political supremacy of the working class and its revolutionary dictatorship. The man who repudiates the dictatorship of the proletariat repudiates the socialist revolution, and digs the grave of socialism.10

As long as class society exists the working class is forced to break the will of the opposite side, through repression if necessary. For Trotsky, fetishism for parliamentary democracy and peaceful advocacy of struggle can never sustain the means the revolution needs to defend itself. Specifically, this theoretical incapacity on Kautsky’s part is rooted in what Trotsky sees as an essentially Kantian attitude, i.e. that in questions of force, Kautsky relies on his own version of the categorical imperative. Instead of firmly taking sides with the oppressed against the oppressors, of the forces of revolution against reaction, Kautsky and others are wont to condemn and wash their hands of both sides for being violent.

          With examples from the violence of the English Civil War, of the American and French Revolutions, and of the Paris Commune, Trotsky claims that there exists an analogous situation facing the Soviet Republic. Historically, the progressive forces in each of these struggles required the use of repression to foster the conditions necessary to ensure their respective goals. Thus, the Kantian invocation of the inviolable dignity and rights of man, to be respected no matter the circumstances, is a liberal sham according to Trotsky since ‘… as long as human labor power, and consequently life itself remain articles of sale and purchase, of exploitation and robbery, the principle of the sacredness of human life remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.’ In the context of civil war, the only way to really make the ‘individual’ sacred for Trotsky is to overcome what he calls Kautsky’s ‘Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle’. ‘To make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only be solved by blood and iron.’11

          As for the charge of the party substituting itself for the proletariat, it could be rightly said that the dictatorship of the soviets only became possible through the dictatorship of the party; that ‘the party has afforded to the Soviets the possibility of becoming transformed from shapeless parliaments of labor into the apparatus of the supremacy of labor.’ With the last imperialist war, the young Soviet state was forced to reorganise its industry, or ‘re-create it … just like the army, out of fragments’. Socialist theory had no ready answer to these questions facing the Bolsheviks, and instead of throwing theoretical obstacles in the way, Trotsky insisted that the Soviet state do all it could to initiate ‘the practical measures of our economic reconstruction’. These constituted the policies of war communism which included a single economic plan for the country; compulsory labour service; the ‘militarisation of labour’, and one-man management. But these were all deemed necessary to combat and overcome an enormous national crisis.

          Thus, it was ‘Kautskianism’ and not Bolshevism which remained ‘a whole epoch behind’ and incapable of appreciating the new dimensions of class struggle that workers must confront after seizing power.

Lih on the ‘Militarisation’ of Labour

Today, for most significant assessments of Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, it is still those chapters on the militarisation of labour which prove the most controversial. A consensus about these chapters is held not only by bourgeois scholars of the revolution, who condemn Trotsky as an authoritarian for authoritarianism’s sake, but also by those who genuinely sympathise with Trotsky, and are considered his disciples. For Trotsky’s socialist critics (including Isaac Deutscher, Ernest Mandel, and Tony Cliff), the last few chapters of Terrorism and Communism anticipate some of the worst aspects of Stalinist authoritarianism. He is criticised for promoting a ‘substitutionist’ or ‘authoritarian Marxism’. Accordingly, Terrorism and Communism deserves its reputation as Trotsky’s ‘worst book’, because it supposedly fetishises authoritarian policies.12

          However, all these conceptions of Trotsky are effectively demolished in Lih’s essay. For Lih, Trotsky’s militarisation plan was not a substitute for constructing socialism, but a concrete response to a national crisis. Trotsky, as Lih points out, only meant militarisation as ‘an analogy’, though as one ‘rich in content’ for the current crisis. The example of an army as an institution is helpful for Trotsky in representing the supremacy of the whole over the parts, and the type of coordination needed for reconstruction. He only used the army as his model in the context of a life-and-death struggle amid complete economic collapse brought on by war.

          For Trotsky, with the model of an army come the qualities of enthusiasm, of normal and habitual methods of work, and an emphasis on the ‘unprecedented readiness of each one of us to sacrifice himself for the revolution’. The analogy also conveyed the qualities of exactness, and such ‘militarisation’, basing itself on new property-forms gained after the revolution, would reflect different class relations in Russia compared to the military structures presupposed by the White armies. Not that the model of the military itself meant an anticipation of a future classless society, but, unlike the White armies, the Red could represent ‘a winning combination of the peasantry’ with the advanced workers, instead of an enforcement of class hostilities.13

According to Lih, readers sometimes gain the impression that Trotsky wanted to maintain the 1920 levels of compulsion into the indefinite socialist future. But Trotsky argued that such compulsion would decrease as the economic situation improved. All this confusion rests on a philological error for Lih, in how the words ‘trudovaia povinnost’ function in Terrorism and Communism. Lih understands the words to mean ‘labour duty’, which is something of a moral obligation for anyone living under a workers’ state, different from ‘compulsory labour’, which Trotsky analytically distinguished as a merely temporary measure. Hence, one encounters confusion over sentences translated into English from Terrorism and Communism, such as ‘the very principle of compulsory labour service is for the Communist unquestionable’, when Trotsky here actually means labour duty, i.e. the democratic principle that everyone should be active and contribute to socialist society in some manner.14

          Socialism, for Trotsky, did indeed mean a regulated distribution of labour according to a rationally conceived plan, and that physical compulsion in such dire straits as civil war was needed to ensure the future of socialism. However, Lih emphasises that such physical compulsion was to be applied only to idlers and slackers, and not to the proletariat as a class itself. Trotsky ‘was not admitting that physical compulsion was or ever could be used against the labour force as a whole’; the militarisation of labour could not be a successful one if most of the working class did not support it as an absolute necessity. Trotsky indeed implies throughout his writings that once these crises stabilise and cease, the need for such brute compulsion will decrease. Hence, contrary to the myths of Trotsky’s valorisation of war communism as the ultimate form of socialism, Lih argues that a long-term perspective emerges in Terrorism and Communism: that is, how the measure of compulsion would be gradually replaced with material incentives made increasingly available by the rise in production levels. Repression is only one of the means to ensure the existence of socialism, and a ‘minor one compared to moral influences and material incentive’.15

Enter Žižek

With Lih’s account, one can reasonably argue that Trotsky’s polemic was mediated by the circumstances of civil war and was not based on any idealistic conceptions of reifying War Communism on a permanent basis. His advocacy of these specific policies – for all their possible flaws – was a practical response to defend the interests of the revolution from the economic and political devastation imperialism had thrown Russia into. Thus, following Lih’s arguments, we can see Trotsky’s policies of 1920 as having a much more utilitarian and pragmatic character than a metaphysical one.

          Žižek presents us with material similar to that of Lih’s in his Foreword, and it is advantageous that he uses this historical evidence to problematise the relation between Trotsky and Stalinism. But Žižek invokes Lih with a psychoanalytic twist: Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism represents something more ‘symptomal’; that it is a repressed text which the public discourse has denied or tip-toed around due to its associations with Stalinism. Thus, the text exhibits what Žižek calls the ‘Bolshevik unconscious’.

One notices Žižek moving Lih’s historical reconstruction of Trotsky onto his more Lacanian territory. From this, he recasts Lenin and Trotsky as existentialist politicians, who, unlike Kautsky, embraced the responsibility of their political actions as authentic ‘acts’. The actual value of Bolshevism then lies in its authentic and unconditional ideological commitment to a cause, a cause that cannot be resolved at the level of the Symbolic discourse of liberalism. But this commitment for Žižek is a self-grounding one: it has no ‘objective’ guarantee, or, in Lacanian terms, it has no ‘Big Other’ to satisfy. In the case of Kautsky, his Big Other is the belief in parliamentary democracy as the ultimate form of politics, while the Bolsheviks cast off the false ‘objectivity’ of democratic ideology for the truth of a Real denied by parliamentary struggle, namely, class struggle. This struggle for Žižek is denied any transcendental guarantee and must be affirmed as a matter of subjective commitment. But this Kierkegaardian leap into struggle – as Žižek describes it – is denied not only by Kautsky but also by Stalinist ideology. Stalinism becomes the regime of parricide that denies the authentic core of Leninism exhibited in the early days of the revolution and hides the commitment to the Real behind a new Symbolic register of ‘humanism’ and ‘legality’, as exemplified in the Moscow Show Trials.

          Žižek starts his Foreword by asking what needs to be done with Trotsky. He proposes that we ‘save him’ from his public image as the fanatic apostle of revolutionary war and struggle (promoted perhaps by ‘Trotskyists’) and the ‘gentrified image’ of Trotsky as the exilic grandfatherly figure. Trotsky needs to be restored ‘beyond good and evil’, and Žižek faults erstwhile neo-conservative supporters of Trotsky for promoting a tame version of him as an ‘anti-bureaucratic libertarian critic of the Stalinist Thermidor, partisan of workers self-organization, supporter of psychoanalysis and modern art, friend of surrealists etc.’ Žižek remarks that this image of Trotsky makes one ‘almost sympathetic to Stalin’s anti-Trotskyist wisdom’. But Žižek claims Terrorism and Communism is the symptomatic text that frustrates this gentrification, since it is indirectly close to Stalin. Žižek goes on to entertain the idea, shocking to more ‘liberal’ interpretations of Trotsky, that Terrorism and Communism places him in the company of Stalin in so far as he is an advocate of terror. Žižek even cites a rumour that Stalin was a great admirer of Trotsky’s civil-war polemic, as he read it with much enthusiasm and kept with him a heavily underlined copy.16

          Žižek is aware of how bad a press Terrorism and Communism has, even within the ranks of Trotsky’s sympathisers: ‘…Terrorism and Communism is disowned even by many a Trotskyist, from Isaac Deutscher to Ernest Mandel (who characterized it as Trotsky’s “worst book”, his relapse into anti-democratic dictatorship.)’. But, in an ironic twist, Žižek says we need to reclaim Trotsky’s book on the terrain of ‘Stalinism’, i.e. on the terrain of ‘terror and industrial mobilization’. It is here that one can find a ‘minimal but crucial difference between Trotsky and Stalin…’17

          What that minimal difference is for Žižek we will come to soon. But Žižek first wants to understand the circumstances in which the Bolsheviks found themselves in 1920. He argues that Terrorism and Communism relies, like Lenin, on a forthcoming Western European revolution. He cites the accusations of anti-communists that the faith Trotsky and Lenin had in the European revolution was dogmatic and abstract, if not simply ‘illusory’. Unfortunately, Žižek does nothing to really challenge this caricature of Bolshevik euphoria in its faith in the West and leaves the charges as they stand. Instead of looking at and analysing these historical blunders concretely, he washes away the crucial historical junctures in emphasising the problem in terms of a psychoanalytic drama. Such a drama ignores and does not correspond to the real historical coordinates of revolutionary possibility.18 And without a real dissection of the international conditions facing the Bolsheviks, one may be led to accept the Stalinist myth that since the revolutionary prospects in the West were ultimately illusory, the programme of ‘socialism in one country’ becomes legitimate against the perspective of Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

          Žižek is at his best when he repeats Trotsky’s arguments about the form of Soviet power as superior to parliamentarism. He is right to point out that, for Trotsky, parliamentary democracy ‘passivizes the masses too much, leaving the initiative to the apparatus of state power (in contrast to the “soviets” in which the working classes directly mobilize themselves and exert their power).’ Dictatorship should not be cast as the opposite of democracy, since democracy as it is currently posited is a bourgeois dictatorship. Rather, proletarian dictatorship is a form of how the working class actively mobilises (in Žižek’s words) its ‘own forces and thus to create a new majority’. But Žižek puts a Lacanian spin on this idea of soviet dictatorship, and thereby makes it more decisionistic: Not only does the working class control its own destiny – it creates the conditions for its own success itself. As a form of terroristic dictatorship, it traverses bourgeois fantasies in order to properly act, i.e., to activate the Real denied by official liberal discourses. Contra Kautsky then, the Bolsheviks can accept the ‘fear of the abyss of the act’.19

          Žižek thus reads into Bolshevism Lacanian categories, of what he calls in other places an ‘ethics of the Real’. He even considers such an ethics to separate the essence of Bolshevism from the crude objectivism of Second International Marxism.20 But such Lacano-decisionism seems unwarranted even at first blush in light of reading Trotsky’s text, since Trotsky does not advocate voluntarism against Kautsky’s sclerosis, as much as a better assessment of necessity. Contra Kautsky, who assumed that the proletariat may have waited until the time was right, Trotsky argues that the working class did not merely impose its will upon history but recognised a deeper necessity in terms of historical and material forces. As we quoted above:

No one gives the proletariat the opportunity of choosing whether it will or will not mount the horse, whether it will take power immediately or postpone the moment. Under certain conditions the working class is bound to take power, under the threat of political self-annihilation for a whole historical period.21

From Lenin to Stalin

Žižek’s Foreword, as we mentioned, is an attempt to unearth what he deems as the ‘Bolshevik unconscious’ – the unconscious of authentic terror repressed under mounds of historical distortion. Like Freud’s image of Rome, Žižek understands the Soviet Union as a place ‘whose history is deposited in its present in the guise of the different layers of the archaeological remainders, each new level covering up the preceding one….’ But the Soviet bureaucrats were only able to perform a sort of psychoanalysis in reverse: that only certain ‘errors’ and certain leaders were ‘rehabilitated’ (such as Nikolai Bukharin for his ideas on market socialism), for the sake of avoiding a real ‘return to the repressed’ in the figure of Trotsky.22

          Trotsky’s repression from Soviet memory re-enacts for Žižek Freud’s distinction ‘between primordial (founding) and secondary repression in the unconscious’. Trotsky represents the authentic terror that established the existence of the Soviet state in the first place, but it was a terror that needed to be denied for the state to exist. Trotsky thus incarnates a negativity that is officially excluded but central to the core of the very state itself. This finds a perfect analogy in Žižek’s Lacanian categories: Trotsky becomes a stand-in for the Real and exists spectrally and parasitic to the Symbolic space of Stalinism.

Žižek goes on to argue that it is the name of Trotsky which conveys the Bolshevik unconscious as a ‘signifier’ for the Leninist legacy. Such a signifier maintains, as Hölderlin does in Lukács’s essay ‘Hölderlin’s Hyperion’, the intransigent fidelity to the ‘heroic revolutionary utopia’. This argument is seemingly at odds with Žižek’s earlier critique of Trotskyism in Revolution at the Gates, where Trotskyism represents a Hölderlin-like abstract fidelity to the revolutionary proletariat which prevents it from embracing what Žižek calls a ‘repeating’ but not a ‘returning’ to Lenin.23 But here, Žižek embraces the abstract Jacobinism of a voluntaristic Trotsky permanently at odds with any manifestation of Thermidorian reaction.

          Against the pessimism of Lukács’s endorsement of Stalinist Thermidor, then, Žižek maintains that Stalinism was not a necessary historical a priori, and cites Lenin’s fight against bureaucratic degeneration and Trotsky’s critique and struggle against Stalinism. It is here that Žižek affirms the authentic Leninist terror of Trotsky – one that is willing to openly admit itself as brutal and ruthless – as opposed to Stalinist terror, which hides its brutality behind a juridico-symbolic order of ‘normality’.24 For Žižek, Stalinism is the triumph of the Symbolic over the effaced Real. But it may be argued here that Žižek construes Stalinism as necessary in a different way than in just the historical sense, namely as part of an unresolved dialectic between the Real and the Symbolic. We notice too in Žižek’s Lacanian lens that the struggle waged against Stalinism becomes less a concrete political programme and strategy and more of an opposition to ‘Stalinist humanism’ in favour of an abstract Real.

          It is here that Žižek reveals an inability to properly conceptualise the problem of Stalinism and is at a loss to tell us whether Trotsky’s programme presented a real alternative. Žižek is more interested in Trotsky as an authentic utopian bearer of the Bolshevik unconscious than as the leader of the Left Opposition or the Fourth International. But there is a deeper reason for turning Trotsky into a signifier for an abstract utopianism, and this presupposes in Žižek a deeper fatalism about the necessity of Stalinism. For him, Trotsky’s strategy and attitude in the mid-1920s made it ‘impossible for his orientation to win in the struggle for state power’, and he goes on to repeat an old anecdote told by Georgi Dimitrov about Stalin’s support from the ‘middle cadres’, which explained Stalin’s triumph. But, unfortunately, this does not present us with much of an explanation of the material and political genesis of the Stalinist bureaucracy and, instead of a historical-materialist account, we are given Stalin’s own impressionistic one as to why Stalin rose to power. Žižek argues that Stalin was ‘fully aware’ of why he succeeded, as the latter emphasised the ‘middle cadres’ as being decisive in his defeat of Trotsky and his consolidation of power.25 The ossification and betrayal of the Bolshevik legacy is merely ascribed to Stalin’s handpicking the cadres for the new Soviet aristocracy, and it ignores much of Trotsky’s own account of the rise of bureaucratic domination. But Žižek here ignores Trotsky’s analysis and critique of Stalinism.

Trotsky and the Messianic Fever

Žižek’s final sections of his Foreword mention a utopian fever that sustained the Bolsheviks in the years of civil war – a fever that is not reducible to illusions historians allege that the Bolsheviks had concerning war communism. Žižek gathers for us in this section an assemblage of utopian images from various quarters of Russian and world culture. As we glide past all the apocalyptic references he makes (from Paulinian visions to Thomas Müntzer), we come across an interesting discussion of Alexander Blok’s The Twelve.26 However, what is exceptionally odd about Žižek’s discussion of this poem of ‘catastrophe and utopia’ is its neglecting even to mention Trotsky’s own account of the poem, which puts these images of The Twelve in a different and more critical light. Žižek’s ideas of Trotsky as the utopian signifier of revolutionary heroism lead him to obscure a difference Trotsky himself asserts in Literature and Revolution and has the effect of illicitly lumping the message of Terrorism and Communism (with its acceptance of historical necessity) over the abstractions of pre-revolutionary utopianism.

          In Literature and Revolution, we see that while Trotsky admits The Twelve is Blok’s best work – with the poem expressing the spiritual conflict in Blok between the revolutionary and the mystic – it is still not a poem of the revolution. Instead, The Twelve represents ‘the swan song of the individualistic art that went over to the Revolution’ but a song which remains non-revolutionary:

The Twelve is not a poem of the Revolution; because, after all, the meaning of the Revolution as an element … does not consist in releasing individualism that had been driven into a blind alley. The inner meaning of the Revolution remains somewhere outside the poem. The poem itself is eccentric in the sense of the word as it is used in physics. That is why Blok crowns his poem with Christ. But Christ belongs in no way to the Revolution, only to Blok’s past … Blok does not give a picture of the Revolution, and certainly not of the work of its vanguard, but of its accompanying phenomena which were called forth by it, but which were in essence contrary to it. The poet seems to want to say that he feels the Revolution in this also, that he feels its sweep, the terrible commotion in the heart, the awakening, the bravery, the risk, and that even in these disgusting, senseless and bloody manifestations is reflected the spirit of the Revolution which, to Blok, is the spirit of Christ rampant.27

In Žižek’s manoeuvring to bring Trotsky closer to an abstract utopianism, the latter is assimilated into the ranks of what Žižek describes as an apocalyptic modernism. He reads Trotsky’s statements from Literature and Revolution about the new communist man as representing a ‘biopolitical dream’ against the ethics of Stalinism. Contra the modernist ideas of the first years of Bolshevik power, Stalinism reasserted ‘traditional aesthetic norms of beauty … homosexuality was outlawed, sexual promiscuity condemned, and marriage proclaimed the elementary cell of the new society.’ Here, Žižek is ambiguous as to whether the utopian energies Trotsky championed in Literature and Revolution entailed a worse threat than Stalinism to the very coordinates of the revolution itself. Trotsky’s ideas might have been too utopian, and too far-reaching. He even entertains the possibility that the Stalinist reassertion of traditional norms was a necessary evil against too much of a drive to refashion, re-create, and re-build everything. The Bolshevik modernist dream Žižek detects in Trotsky might have ‘shake[n] the very coordinates of the dream itself’, and it is possible that Stalinism became a necessary check to the excesses of the ‘Bolshevik unconscious’.28

          This hypothesis of Žižek’s, that, for the revolution to survive, Stalinism became a necessary stop-gap and limit to Trotsky’s messianic, futurist voluntarism, is intelligible in terms of Žižek’s Lacanian categories of the Symbolic and the Real. What is cited as Trotsky’s biopolitical dream, or the modernist passion for the Real as being necessarily repressed by Stalinism, follows Žižek’s idea of the Real as being merely parasitic upon a Symbolic space. To search for a Real beyond the Symbolic – to escape these invariant structures – is an illusory pursuit which must dissipate in the reassertion of a Symbolic register. Thus, Žižek seems to suggest again that Stalinism functions as the unfortunate – but one is also forced to say, necessary – Symbolic register that represses the Bolshevik drive for the Real into its unconscious.

          We come to the close of Žižek’s Foreword with a psychoanalytic exegesis of Trotsky’s dream of Lenin, recounted in his diary in exile from 1935. In Trotsky’s dream, he meets a Lenin who does not know he is dead, but still thinks he is alive and still working towards communism.29 Žižek interprets this dream as the site for the appearance of the Bolshevik unconscious in the undead Lenin; of where Lenin refuses to die, but comes back as a ghost to Trotsky, but only as an undead, eternally stalking signifier of revolution. The task of reading the legacy of Lenin today is thereby interpreted as repeating a certain spirit, or spectrality, of Lenin: in ‘repeating’ Lenin, we extract from Lenin his revolutionary and utopian energy for emancipation. But Žižek’s spectral Lenin, like Derrida’s spectral Marx, can provide only formalistic criteria for what ‘repeating’ the ‘truth’ of Leninism is. Lenin represents the undead Idea of communism (here for Žižek cast in the Badiouian sense of Idea) that transcends, like Hölderlin’s fidelity to Jacobinism, the brute positivity of the world in favour of an abstract Idea affirmed for its own sake, even if it is inevitably repressed.


Žižek ends the Foreword on a sublime yet pessimistic note in invoking Hegel’s analysis of the French Revolution and its degeneration. While Hegel acknowledged the greatness of the French Revolution, he did not shy away from ‘coldly analyzing the inner necessity of this explosion of abstract freedom turning into its opposite, self-destructive terror’. Žižek asks us to accept Hegel’s ‘immanent’ critique also as apropos of the Russian and Chinese revolutions.30 But this entails that the abstractions of the utopias and dreams of the Bolshevik leadership, like the dreams and ‘absolute freedom’ of the Jacobins, necessarily had to dissipate into their opposites.

          We can understand Žižek’s analysis of the Russian Revolution as an illustration of his more fundamental Lacanian registers, specifically, the registers of the Symbolic and the Real. It is not that Žižek sees no possible alternative to Stalinism because of historical conditions (or the multiplicity of alternatives he entertains in this Foreword). While the ethics of Bolshevism remains a passion for the Real – for the truth of an emancipated working class – this passion can no more help from dissipating into a new Symbolic order than Hegel’s conception of Absolute Freedom can help from transforming into its opposite. The revolutionary act is what seeks the Real, but it can only temporarily suspend the Symbolic since this is a structure that is itself essential to the existence of the Real. It is this unresolved dialectic of the Real that is the real analytic behind Žižek’s understanding of the Russian Revolution and its fate.

          Since there cannot be any permanent resolution to our passion of the Real, and since Žižek presupposes a permanent tension or negativity between the registers of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real, the features of illusion, exclusion, and ultimately repression will be part of any political order. They are integral features, since the tension between the Real and the Symbolic is inscribed within the very fabric of existence. This is perhaps the core reason for Žižek’s treatment of Bolshevism as a ‘dark precursor’ to Stalin, where Stalinist terror becomes a mere repetition of the original red terror and confirms a metaphysical inability to overcome negativity. This is the logic behind Žižek’s statement that all revolutions must betray themselves, since alienation and antagonism are inevitable features of life. Stalinism, for Žižek, cannot help but be the Lacanian ‘truth’ of Bolshevism.31

          Žižek does give us a ‘minimal difference’ between Lenin and Trotsky on the one hand and Stalinism on the other, in how the former two were ‘candid’ when they advocated repression, while the latter ‘hid’ behind an ideological-lie apparatus and a false pretence of legality. But the content of the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin, in terms of the struggle between ‘permanent revolution’ and ‘socialism in one country’ (or between the interests of proletarian democracy and a homicidal bureaucracy), is downplayed here to focus on a psychoanalytic understanding of the struggle. And this leaves us with an ahistorical picture. Žižek admires the undead signifiers of the revolution (Lenin and Trotsky) over those who assert the Symbolic over an authentic commitment to the Real. Thus, what we see in this minimal difference is a relativisation of the struggle Trotskyism waged against Stalinism, replaced by a dance of Lacanian categories taking the place of real events.

          To conclude, Žižek’s intervention is an important one in that he promotes Lih’s reconstruction of Trotsky’s work and at least attempts to rescue Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism from undeserved oblivion. He challenges us to read Trotsky anew, free of stereotypes and clichés. But, like his reading of Lenin and other figures of revolutionary Marxism, one of the unfortunate effects of Žižek’s analysis is to turn Trotsky into too much of a bloodless signifier of the past. Trotsky, as with Lenin, becomes a ghostly spectral presence that may be re-activated as an icon or spirit of revolution, but not as a theoretician or revolutionary that can grapple with the material contradictions and relations of the present. Trotsky and Lenin can inspire us as heroes, but only without their concrete historical legacies.


Cliff, Tony 2003, ‘Trotsky on Substitutionism’, in Cliff and Hallas 2003.

Cliff, Tony and Duncan Hallas 2003, Party and Class, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Deutscher, Isaac 1976, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky, 1879–1921, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doland, Moira 1993, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists, 1900–1924, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kautsky, Karl 1973, Terrorism and Communism: A Contribution to the Natural History of Revolution, translated by W.H. Kerridge, Westport, CT: Hyperion Press.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich 2004, Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917, edited by Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso.

Lih, Lars T. 2007, ‘“Our Position Is in the Highest Degree Tragic”: Bolshevik “Euphoria” in 1920’, in History and Revolution: Refuting Revisionism, edited by Mike Haynes and Jim Wolfreys, London: Verso.

Mandel, Ernest 1979, Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamics of His Thought, London: New Left Books.

Robinson, Andrew and Simon Tormey 2003, ‘What Is Not to be Done! Everything You Wanted to Know about Lenin, and (Sadly) Weren’t Afraid to Ask Zižek’, available at: <https://www.academia.edu/779123/What_is_Not_to_be_Done_Everything_you_wanted_to_know_about_Lenin_and_sadly_werent_afraid_to_ask_Zizek>.

Trotsky, Leon 1958, Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1961, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1987, The Lessons of October, London: Bookmarks.

Trotsky, Leon 2003, Literature and Revolution, edited by William Keach, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Trotsky, Leon 2007, Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, with a Preface by H.N. Brailsford and a Foreword by Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso.

Žižek, Slavoj 2007, ‘Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism, or Despair and Utopia in the Turbulent Year 1920’, in Trotsky 2007.




  • 1. Trotsky 2007.
  • 2. Lih 2007, p. 119.
  • 3. Doland 1993, pp. 232–5.
  • 4. Kautsky 1973, p. 201. See also Doland 1993, p. 239.
  • 5. Trotsky 1961, p. xxvii.
  • 6. Trotsky 2007, p. 98.
  • 7. Trotsky 2007, p. 22.
  • 8. Trotsky 2007, p. 24.
  • 9. Trotsky 2007, p. 12.
  • 10. Trotsky 2007, p. 26.
  • 11. Trotsky 2007, pp. 62–3.
  • 12. Deutscher 1976, pp. 516–17; Mandel 1979, p. 48; Cliff 2003.
  • 13. Lih 2007, p. 122.
  • 14. For the distinction between ‘labour duty’ and ‘compulsory labour’, see Lih 2007, p. 124. Also, Lih’s researches have shown that the compulsory methods used were not as authoritarian as the consensus amongst some Trotskyists and most historians supposes. See for instance Lih’s arguments that for Trotsky the ‘militarisation of labour’ did not entail the entire economy being subordinated to the army, but a ‘shock logic’ that would put crucial industries on a war footing, with workers in such industries placed in the privileged position of having more rations. This privilege galvanised workers to petition to have such a status conferred on their own factories. In many ways according to Lih, this ‘shock logic’ anticipated the New Economic Policy, which is usually considered the absolute antithesis of war communism. See Lih 2007, p. 123.
  • 15. Lih 2007, p. 126.
  • 16. Žižek 2007, p. ix.
  • 17. Žižek 2007, p. ix.
  • 18. Trotsky 1987.
  • 19. Žižek 2007, p. xviii.
  • 20. According to Žižek, Lenin and Trotsky still maintained a mixed relationship to Second International Marxism. Žižek cites Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism polemic, and Lenin and Trotsky’s praise for the ‘good’ Kautsky before the war, as evidence. See Žižek 2007, pp. xvii, 179.
  • 21. Trotsky 2007, p. 98.
  • 22. Žižek 2007, p. xix.
  • 23. Žižek in Lenin 2004, p. 308.
  • 24. Žižek 2007, p. xxiv.
  • 25. Žižek 2007, p. xxvi.
  • 26. Žižek 2007, p. xxvii.
  • 27. Trotsky 2003, p. 109.
  • 28. Žižek 2007, p. xxx.
  • 29. Žižek 2007, p. xxx. From Trotsky’s Diary in Exile, 1935: ‘Last night, or rather early this morning, I dreamed I had a conversation with Lenin. Judging by the surroundings, it was on a ship, on the third-class deck. Lenin was lying in a bunk; I was either standing or sitting near him, I am not sure which. He was questioning me anxiously about my illness. “You seem to have accumulated nervous fatigue, you must rest…” I answered that I had always recovered from fatigue quickly, thanks to my native Schwungkraft [pep, momentum], but that this time the trouble seemed to lie in some deeper processes… “Then you should seriously (he emphasized the word) consult the doctors (several names)…” I answered that I already had many consultations and began to tell him about my trip to Berlin; but looking at Lenin I recalled that he was dead. I immediately tried to drive away this thought, so as to finish the conversation. When I had finished telling him about my therapeutic trip to Berlin in 1926, I wanted to add, “This was after your death”; but I checked myself and said, “After you fell ill…”’ (Trotsky 1958).
  • 30. Žižek 2007, p. xxxi.
  • 31. See Robinson and Tormey’s essay on Žižek and Lenin, where they argue persuasively that Žižek’s Lacanian ontology makes the idea of emancipation unintelligible: Robinson and Tormey 2003.