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Last week's debate about "progress," lifted from our recent bonus podcast episode with Aaron Sibarium, took me on a funny tangent this weekend. I had decided to spend last week teleworking from Mexico City, leaving the weekend for tourism. As one does when one is in Mexico City for the first time, I went to the Leon Trotsky museum to see where the Old Man met his grisly fate.
When I came back home to DC on Sunday, I dusted off the two Trotsky books I had lying around the house. I had read his dispatches from the Balkan Wars, but had not spent that much time with his Terrorism and Communism since I bought it in a fit of enthusiasm about reading at the height of the pandemic. I sat down to re-read the intro to the latter book—penned by the inimitable Slavoj Zizek—and thought a bit more about how my priors put me closer to Trotsky than I may be comfortable admitting. Yes, you heard that right. Bear with me, dear reader, this will take some explaining.
Terrorism and Communism is Trotsky's fiery rebuke to a 1919 criticism of the Bolsheviks by German Marxist Karl Kautsky ("who is today," Zizek says in a wry aside, "deservedly forgotten"). Kautsky was accusing the Bolsheviks of getting ahead of history, of prosecuting their revolution before its time. For Kautsky, an orthodox Marxist, the material conditions for the triumph of the proletariat had not arrived in Russia, and indeed had not arrived in Germany either. Capitalism had not created the conditions for its own demise; it had not yet immiserated the proletariat enough for them to rise to power. Though committed to communism, Kautsky nevertheless counseled that change would come through the ballot box. He savaged Lenin and Trotsky for fomenting a useless civil war in Russia with their approach to hasten the revolution, and deplored the brutality with which the Bolsheviks were implementing their dictatorship of the proletariat.
Trotsky's reply was published a year later, in 1920. It was a ferocious defense of Bolshevik excesses. The sometimes gleefully violent book is often cited as proof that the Soviet Union would not have been markedly different had Trotsky triumphed over Stalin after Lenin's death—had he helmed the Revolution himself instead of fleeing to Mexico to await his ice pick wielding assassin. Indeed, a dog-eared and heavily annotated copy of Terrorism and Communism was found among Stalin's papers after his death. Whether this is true or not need not concern us here. What jumped out at me most of all was the logic behind Trotsky's most bloody-minded prose, and the echoes it has for us today.
Trotsky defends the repressions and persecutions of "war communism"—the set of repressive policies he and his pals were pushing at the time—by attacking the very notion of the validity of the franchise. "Dictatorship is necessary because it is a case, not of partial changes, but of the very existence of the bourgeoisie," Trotsky says. "No agreement is possible on this ground. Only force can be the deciding factor."
Why force? For Trotsky, democracy renders the proletariat passive, making them only participate as voters rather than as fully responsible actors. What he and Lenin were doing was ensuring that all the concessions won during the February Revolution—when the Tsar abdicated and handed power to a liberal government—would not be undone. By Bolshevik logic, liberal democracy doesn't empower the people, it just gives license to the aristocracy and various business interests to reassert themselves and re-oppress the workers after the dust settles. Overthrowing the liberal regime (in the subsequent October Revolution) was the only way to keep the workers from being hoodwinked again—as they had been throughout the course of the 19th century, Trotsky believed.
Was Trotsky right? Depends. Kautsky's orthodox Marxist belief—that the revolution will be ultimately validated at the ballot box as social conditions push the workers into solidarity—turned out to be false. Communism was never a winning electoral issue, in large part because the key underlying analytical insight of Marx—that capitalism creates irresolvable contradictions—also proved to be false. If actual revolution is your goal, Trotsky's your man.
But Trotsky's fervor blinded him to a different path. As Sheri Berman has pointed out in her work, it was one of Kautsky's associates, Edouard Bernstein, who most clearly saw how to reconcile the dreams of utopian socialists with the realities of modern democracy: namely, that alliances had to be struck between classes, and that all victories would be partial and piecemeal. Social democracy was a worthy process even if communism was never going to be its end-point. Capitalism's contradictions, it turns out, could and would be solved through democratic bargaining. There was a "third way"—embracing a progressive vision in harmony with democracy, without succumbing to the temptations of dictatorship.
Still, there's something in Trotsky's point that resonates with me. His insecurity about the longevity of the Russian Revolution seems to come from an appreciation of the contingency of history. Kautsky believed that history moves in his direction. Trotsky is not so sure, and it is this doubt that fuels and justifies his violence.
I, too, am not a determinist. It has always seemed to me premature to conclude that the turn things have taken since 1945—the end of World War II inaugurates the rise of modern social democracy in the West—means that things will continue in that direction. And to claim that "democracy" has been on the march since 1776 or 1789—and that the social democratic period is somehow a confirmation of a larger trend—is even less credible to me. I'm with Trotsky the historian. It's not just a causal fallacy to write a heroic history of the march of democracy, it's a deceitful packaging of faith as scholarship.
Unlike Trotsky, however, I am not a revolutionary. My worries about the contingency of history don't manifest as a feverish desire to seize control and try to direct things where I think they must go. When I think about policy, my attachment to contingency leads to councils of caution. When I think about history, it leads me to a kind of amused detachment, and it drives me to poke holes in deterministic accounts.
But why am I not a revolutionary? Or, indeed, why am I not progressive? Is it merely temperamental? Or is it something more than that? It's hard to say. I increasingly think it comes down to a kind of general faithlessness. I simply don't have faith in the kind of historical progress that underpins the logic of social democracy. And at the same time, reading Trotsky at his most violent, I'm simply awed at his murderous self-confidence. Crippling self-doubt and thoroughgoing skepticism—I guess that's what has kept me from ever being of the left?