Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Role of Terror in Russian History

Recently I've delved into a variety of different books dealing with the subject of terror.  I've looked at Terry Eagelton's Holy Terror, which traces Europe's fascination with violence back to its Greek origins (See my posts on the book);  Hannah Arendt's short study of the subject, On Violence, which opens, appropriately enough, with reference to Lenin's statement that the twentieth century would be a century of wars and revolution;  and Slavoj Zizek's short treatise on the subject, Violence. Obviously, the question of terror is central to the history of twentieth century Europe and, more particularly, Russia.  Stalinism is of course terror personified.  We need only read Robert Conquest's masterwork, The Great Terror:  A Reassessment, to gain a true picture of the extent to which the trajectory of a people can revolve around criminality and violence.

Yet Stalin didn't invent revolutionary violence. Lenin and all other Old Bolsheviks accepted, or rather embraced, the idea of terror as well.  So too did rival socialist and anarchist parties.  The Bolsheviks saw terror as a legitimate vehicle for establishing and maintaining revolutionary gains against all comers.  Although the idea of terror seems to be discredited in modern political discourse, most revolutionary theorists and thinkers believed that real social change required a large measure of violence.  In fact, almost everybody who opposed the status quo, who opposed the worst excesses of either medieval or modern (ie, capitalist) life, believed that violence in defense of liberty was, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, no vice.  People looked back in particular to the model of French Revolution's Reign of Terror.  Who could gainsay the fact that violence had secured the country against its enemies, both internal and external?

Sophie Wahnich's book, In Defence of Terror:  Liberty or Death in the French Revolution, reminds us of the fact that nineteenth century radicals had few qualms about celebrating the Reign of Terror as perhaps the only weapon which could sustain revolution and keep kings and aristocrats at bay.  Of course, knowing that politics was a sterile arena, late nineteenth century Russians radicals openly embraced terror as an engine of change.  By the onset of World War I, certainly men like Lenin were unlikely to regret the use of violence to effect social change.  Could things get any worse than they were in the Great War?  Perhaps Lenin can be forgiven for thinking that they couldn't.  Zizek's contemporary analysis of global inequality illustrates this line of thinking.  Zizek believes in two kinds of violence, subjective and objective violence.  Subjective violence is revolutionary violence, or any form of popular insurrection.  The other kind of violence is objective violence.  Zizek argues that objective violence is the invisible, structural violence of capitalism and neo-colonialism.  While we tend to focus on seemingly random outbreaks of subjective violence, we seldom see the objective conditions which make these outbreaks inevitable. 

One interesting way of looking at revolutionary violence is found in Antoine de Baecque's book, Glory and Terror:  Seven Deaths Under the French Revolution.  De Baecque's original contribution to the study of violence is to show how violence tells an important story in any revolution, or perhaps competing stories.  For De Baecque, dead bodies are scripts which narrate a revolutionary story of justice.  De Baecque does a close reading of seven different macabre stories from the French Revolution.  The interesting thing about these famous deaths is that in each case the revolutionaries move very far away from the known historical "facts."  That is to say, revolutionaries invented very elaborate and richly told tales of horror that surpassed the events as they occurred.  These collective fantasies (and its interesting to see that counter-revolutionaries also engaged in collective fantasies about dead bodies) tell us a great deal about the importance of violence to the mental act of rebellion. 

Thinking of the literature on revolutionary violence, I'm reminded of a presentation I recently attended on the subject of the academic peculiarities of veterans.  The presenter, an expert on advocating for the veteran population, spoke of their defining traits, almost all of them positive.  Veterans were hard-working, respectful, service-oriented, etc.  They also demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for aggression.  The thought disturbed me.  How could this group of heroes, the embodiment of everything good in our country, also be a group of killers?  On some level, I knew that veterans are, almost by definition, killers.  They are, at least, all potential killers.  If this is so, why did the term veteran sound so innocuous, so friendly, so positive?

I think the term revolutionary must be seen in the same light.  A revolutionary is, almost by definition, a killer.   Inspiring fear in others is part of the job.  In some eras, people have celebrated the positive aspects of the revolutionary, purposefully overlooking the murderous ones, or seeing murder as an aspect of social change.  To some extent, this explains the Great Terror.  We can't understand this tragic phenomenon if we don't see how and why so many former revolutionaries accepted the idea of violence as something positive. 

1 comment:

  1. As you say, the notion of terror must be central to the history of the 20th century. I think there is an important distinction to be made, though, between terror and violence. Terror suggests an excess of violence, a quantity and a quality beyond justification. Violence (so it is alleged) can be justified by its results. To some extent Clausewitz's line about war being a continuation of politics by other means need not be a cynical or disturbing idea; if war is violence deployed in pursuit of rational ends, however irrational the means to those ends may be, then warfare can be brought into the realm of political life, the realm of action for the sake of a common good. But terror as a means to further ends often seems to slide into terror as an end in itself, where terror is not deployed in pursuit of rational ends but simply because it can be. To rephrase Edmund Hillary, we climb to the heights of terror because it's there.