Victor Serge

What everyone should know about repression

4. The problem of revolutionary repression


I. Machine gun, typewriter, or ...?

“What do you think of the machine-gun? Wouldn’t you rather have a typewriter or a camera?”

Decent people, who take a pride in sociology, sometimes when they are faced with the realities of the revolution, pose questions of this ... calibre.

Some of them wax lyrical in disapproval of all violence and all dictatorship. To put an end to oppression, poverty, prostitution and war, they trust only in the intervention – above all the literary intervention – of the Mind. In fact enjoying considerable comfort in society as it is, they haughtily place themselves “above the social melée”. What they especially prefer to the machine-gun is the typewriter.

Others, without repudiating violence, formally repudiate dictatorship. The revolution appears to tern to be a miraculous liberation. They dream of a human race made instantly peaceful and good by the removal of its bonds. They dream, in defiance of history, truth, common sense and their own experience, of a total revolution, doubtless not only idyllic, but short, decisive and definitive, leading to a radiant morrow. “Fresh and joyous”, one would say, so much does this conception of the final struggle resemble the official myth of the “war to end war” dreamt up in 1914 by the allied bourgeoisies. No period of transition; no dictatorship of the proletariat (“Down with all dictatorship!”); no repression after the workers’ victory; no revolutionary tribunals, no Cheka! – above all, ye gods, no Cheka! – no more prisons ... A smooth entry into the free city of communism, the arrival straight after the tempest at the Blessed Isles. What these revolutionaries – our libertarian brothers – prefer to the machine- gun is ... garlands of roses, red roses.

A third lot, finally, profess that for the moment the monopoly of the use of the machine gun should be left to the possessing classes, and that one should try to lead them on gently, by persuasion, to give them up ... Meanwhile, these reformers take infinite pains to get ultra- rapid firing regulated by international conference ... They appear to be divided into two categories: those who genuinely prefer negotiation to the machine-gun; and those who, because they are practical and free from illusions, honestly prefer the use of asphyxiating gases.

In fact nobody – except perhaps a few manufacturers of arms and ammunition – has any special predilection for the machine-gun. But the machine-gun exists. It is a reality. Once the mobilisation order goes out, you have the choice of being in front of it or behind it: of serving the symbolic death-machine or being its target. We advise workers to turn to a third solution: to seize the murder instrument and turn it against those who made it. The Russian Bolsheviks were saying from 1915: “Turn the imperialist war into civil war.”

Everything we have just said about the machine-gun applies to the State and its apparatus of constraint: prisons, courts, the police, the security services. The revolution does not have a choke of weapons. It amasses on its bloody arena those forged by history, those which have just fallen from the hands of a defeated ruling class. Yesterday, to constrain the exploited, the bourgeoisie had to use a heavy apparatus of coercion; today, to break the final resistance of the dispossessed exploiters, to stop them taking back the power, and then oblige them to abdicate their privileges for good, the proletariat and the peasantry require a powerful apparatus of repression. The machine-gun does not disappear, it changes hands. There is no question of choosing the ploughshare instead ...

We should however be on guard against simplistic metaphors and analogies. It is not in the nature of the machine-gun itself to change, whatever use is made of it. Whether it is muzzled with a cardboard plug and installed in a museum; whether it is used harmlessly in school training sessions; whether it is held by a ploughman from Beauce cowering in a shell-hole, to pierce the flesh of the Westphalian peasants who are his brothers; whether it is set up on the threshold of an expropriated palace, holding the counter-revolution at bay – not a thread, not a screw is changed ...

An institution, on the contrary, does change along with the men and still more, infinitely more, the classes which make use of it. The army of the feudal monarchy before the French Revolution of 1789-1793, a small full-time army, formed by bought mercenaries and poor devils recruited by force, and commanded by nobles, in no way resembles the army which comes after the bourgeois revolution, a nation in arms, spontaneously answering the call that “The fatherland is in danger” – an army commanded by former sergeants and by professional soldiers. Equally deep is the difference between the imperial army of the old regime in Russia, led to defeat by one Grand-Duke Nicholas, with an officer caste, harshly imposed service and a “gagging” regime – and the Red Army organised by the Communist Party, with Trotsky as its great moving spirit, with its worker commissars, its propaganda services, its daily appeals to the class consciousness of the soldier, its epic victories ... Equally deep, if not more so, is the difference between the bourgeois state, destroyed from top to bottom by the Russian Revolution of October 1917, and the proletarian state built on the rubble. We have raised the question of repression. We shall see that the analogy between the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state and that of the proletarian state is much more apparent than real.



II. The experience of two revolutions

In mid-November 1917, the Soviets, exclusive holders of power for a few days, had carried a complete insurrectional victory throughout Russia, and now saw the era of difficulties opening up. To continue the revolution was going to be a hundred times more difficult for them than it had been to make it and take the power. In the big towns there was not a public service or an administration working. The technicians’ strike threatened the most densely populated towns with untold calamities. Water, electricity and provisions might run out in a few days; with the sewage-works out of action, epidemics were to be expected; transport was more than a little precarious, and supplies were a problem. The first People’s Commissars who came to take possession of the ministries found the offices empty and closed up, with the cupboards locked, and a few hostile, obsequious porters waiting for the new masters to have the empty drawers of the secretaries forced open ... This sabotage by the bureaucracy and technicians, organised by the capitalists (the “striking” civil servants got a stipend from a Committee of plutocrats), lasted for several weeks at its sharpest, and for months, even years, in attenuated form. Meanwhile the civil war was slowly hotting up. The victorious revolution, not the least inclined to shed blood, in fact showed a dangerous degree of indulgence to its enemies. Freed on parole (as in the case of General Krasnov) or ignored, the monarchist officers assembled hastily in the South, forming the first nuclei of the armies of Kornilov, Alexeyev, Krasnov, Denikin and Wrangel. The magnanimity of the young Soviet republic was to cost her rivers of blood for years. The historians will certainly ask themselves one day – and communist theoreticians would undoubtedly do well to keep ahead of the work of the historians – whether, with greater rigour at the outset, with a dictatorship which had been obliged to reduce the enemy classes to impotence without delay by measures of public safety, even when these classes may have appeared passive – whether Red Russia could not in this way have spared herself something of the horrors of civil war and the double terror of Red and White. This was apparently Lenin s thinking, as he set himself very early on to combat hesitations and half measures in repression, just as in everything else.

It was Trotsky’s conception, spelt out in certain draconic orders to the Red Army and in Terrorism and Communism. It was Robespierre’s, telling the Convention on January 16, 1792: “Clemency which makes pacts with tyranny is barbarous.” The theoretical conclusion which seems to come out of the Russian experience is that a revolution cannot at its beginnings be either merciful or indulgent, but must be harsh. In the class war, it is necessary to strike hard, and carry off decisive victories, so as not to have constantly to reconquer new ground, with constant new risks and new sacrifices.

Between October and December 1917, revolutionary justice carried out only 21 executions, the majority of them of social scum. The Extraordinary Commission for the Repression of Counter-Revolution and Speculation, Cheka for short, was founded on December 7, in the face of increasingly bold operations by the enemy within. What was the situation at that point? In general outline, as follows:

The embassies and military missions of the Allies were centres of permanent conspiracy. Counter-revolutionaries of every hue there found subsidies, weapons, political direction. The industrialists, placed under workers’ control or dispossessed, were sabotaging production with the aid of the technicians. Tools, raw materials, stock, work secrets, everything which could be hidden was hidden, everything which could be stolen was stolen. The transport union and the co-ops, directed by the Mensheviks, aggravated the problem of supplies. Speculation made scarcity worse, and aggravated inflation.

The bourgeois Cadets (Constitutional Democrats) were conspiring; the Socialist-Revolutionaries were conspiring; the Populists were conspiring; the Menshevik social-democrats were conspiring; the anarchists were conspiring; the intellectuals were conspiring; the officers were conspiring; each town had its secret chiefs-of-staff, its provisional governments, together with administrators and hangmen, ready to emerge from the shadows after the imminent coup. It was doubtful who could be rallied. On the Czechoslovak front, the commander-in-chief of the Red Army, Muraviev, was preparing to betray and go over to the enemy. The Socialist-Revolutionaries were preparing to assassinate Lenin and Trotsky. Uritsky and Volodarsky were killed in Petrograd. Nakhimson was killed in Yaroslavl. Uprising of the Czechoslovaks; uprisings at Yaroslavl, Rybinsk, Murom, Kazan ... Plot by the Union for the Fatherland and Liberty; plots by the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries; attacks by the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries; the Lockhart affair (the British acting consul in this case was less fortunate than M. Noulens). Plots would follow one after the other for years, undermining the state from within in line with the external offensive of the White armies and foreign intervention. There was to be the affair of the Tactical Centre in Moscow; the activities of the Englishman Paul Dukes and the Tagantsev case in Petrograd; the attack by Leontievsky in Moscow (the case of the “clandestine anarchists”); the betrayals of the fort of Krasnaya-Gorka and the Semenovsky Regiment [1]; the economic counter-revolution and speculation. For years, directors of nationalised enterprises would in fact remain in the service of the expropriated capitalists, giving them information, carrying out their orders, sabotaging production in their interest; there would be countless abuses and excesses of all kinds, the leading party would be infiltrated by those who like to go fishing in troubled waters – mistakes by some, corruption on the part of others; petty-bourgeois individualism would be unleashed in chaotic struggles ... There was no question about the need for repression. The Cheka was no less indispensable than the Red Army and the Commissariat for Supplies.

A hundred and twenty years before, in a similar situation, the French Revolution had reacted in an almost identical manner. The revolutionaries of 1792 had their Committee of Public Safety, their Revolutionary Tribunal, Fouquier-Tinville, and the guillotine. Nor should we forget Jourdan the Head-Chopper or Carrier of Nantes.

The September days, the ban on emigrés, the law on suspects, the hunt for disaffected priests, the depopulation of the Vendée, the destruction of Lyon ... “All internal enemies must be killed,” Danton quite simply said, “in order to triumph over our external enemies.” And accused before she Revolutionary Tribunal – he, the “minister of the Revolution”, of the September massacres, accused of wanting clemency – he cried out: “What does it matter if they call me the drinker of blood? Let us drink the blood of the enemies of mankind, if we have to ...” I shall quote, not Marat, whom proletarian revolutionaries might with some reason claim to follow, but the great orator of the moderate party of the bourgeois revolution, Vergniaud. Requesting summary – terrorist – proceedings against the emigrés in the Legislative Assembly, on October 25, 1791, the tribune of the Gironde said:

Legal proof! You count at nothing the blood this will cost you! Legal proof! Ah! We would rather avoid the disasters which would provide us with such proof!

By what strange aberration do the bourgeois of the 3rd Republic, whose ancestors used terror to defeat the monarchy, the nobility, the feudal clergy and foreign intervention, wax so indignant against the Red terror?



III. Terror has gone on for centuries

We do not deny that terror is terrible. Threatened with death, the proletarian revolution resorted to it in Russia for three years, from 1918 to 1921. It is too readily forgotten that apart from the revolutions necessary to give it birth, bourgeois society took centuries of terror to emerge and grow. Big capitalist property took shape over the centuries through the implacable eviction of the tillers of the soil; manufacturing and then industrial capital were accumulated by the implacable exploitation, aided by bloody legislation, of the dispossessed peasantry, reduced as they were to beggary.

This appalling page of history is passed over in silence in school text-books and even in great works. We know of only one full account – concise but masterly – and that is by Karl Marx in Chapter XXVI of Capital: Primitive Accumulations. “At the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century,” Marx writes, “throughout Western Europe there was a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers.” One of the aims of this very specific legislation was to supply industry with manpower. The lash was the sentence for vagrants, slavery for those who refused to work (Edward VI, King of England, decreed in 1547), branding with a red-hot iron for those who tried to escape, and death for persistent offenders! Theft was to be punished by death. According to Thomas More, “7,200 great and petty thieves were put to death in the reign of Henry VIII”. England then had a population of three to four million. “In Elizabeth’s time, rogues were trussed up apace, and there was not one year commonly wherein three or four hundred were not devoured and eaten up by the gallows.” During this glorious reign, vagrants of over 18 whom nobody would hire for at least 2 years were put to death. In France, “at the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign (Ordinance of July 13th, 1777) every man in good health from 16 to 60 years of age, if without means of subsistence and not practising a trade, is to be sent to the galleys.” In one of her letters of which literary people are so fond, Madame de Sévignt speaks with charming simplicity of the customary hangings of peasants.

For centuries, justice has been nothing but terror organised to the advantage of the possessing classes. To steal from a rich man has always been a greater crime than to kill a poor man. Since the falsification of history required by the class interests of the bourgeoisie is the rule in the educational systems of all democratic countries, so far as I know there is still no serious history of social institutions in French at the disposal of the schools or the public. We are in fact obliged to resort to documentation on Russia. The Marxist historian M.N. Pokrovsky, in his remarkable History of Russian Culture, devotes a chapter of some 20 pages to the subject of justice. Under Ivan III, in the fifteenth century, justice was administered by the boyars, the dvoriani – the nobility, the privileged caste of landowners – and by “good” (meaning more precisely by rich) peasants. The opinion of a few “good people” was more than enough to justify a death sentence, when, naturally, the accused was a poor man. “By the end of the fifteenth century,” writes M.N. Pokrovsky, “it was already clear that the suppression of suspects was the essence of the law.” Suspects to whom? To the rich, of course.

A document dating from 1539 confers the right of dispensing justice on the nobles (the boyars) assisted by “worthies” (rich peasants). The statute laid down the death penalty for “brigands whether caught in flagrante delicto or not” and authorised the torturing of “bad people”. Once the confession was obtained, the “guilty” party would be hanged; if he did not confess, he could still be imprisoned for life. The ordinances according this right did not admit that a nobleman could be put on trial: the law could only begin to be applied to peasants, merchants and craftsmen, and became rigorous only in the case of the poor. To grasp the ferocity of this justice, it is only necessary to go over the history of the peasant revolutions – the Peasants Wars in Germany, the “jacqueries” in France – which marked the emergence of capitalist property. Similar institutions existed in all countries where there was serfdom. This class justice of the feudal class of landowners did not completely disappear, giving way only gradually to the more complete but no less ferocious class justice of the absolute monarchies, characterised by the growing importance of commerce. Up until the bourgeois revolution – until the most recent period of history – there was no equality before justice, not even a purely formal equality, between rich and poor ...

What is clear is that revolutions make no innovations in the sphere of repression and terror; they only revive, in the form of emergency measures, the norms of law and justice which for centuries have been the weapons of the possessing classes against the dispossessed classes ...



IV. From Gallifet to Mussolini

Every time that social crises have directly faced it with the problem of repression, the modern bourgeoisie has not hesitated to revert to the most summary proceedings of class justice, treating its enemies as vagrants were treated in the 15th century. They were hanged; in 1848, the insurgent Parisians of the Saint-Antoine district were machine-gunned in their thousands, and they were only unemployed people, pushed over the brink by skilful provocation. We should never weary of recalling these great facts of history. The justification of the red terror was twice written by the bourgeoisie in advance, written in the finest human blood in the book of history: by beheading the feudal aristocracy and two kings – Charles I of England (1649) and Louis XVI – in order to take the power; and by repressing proletarian uprisings. We can let the dates and facts speak for themselves for a moment.

The Paris Commune, in response to summary executions of’ its soldiers imprisoned by the Versaillais, shot 60 hostages. The Versaillais decimated the people of Paris. According to moderate estimates, the repression claimed more than 100,000 victims in Paris. 20,000 Communards, at least, were machine-gunned to death, not in battle, but afterwards; 3,000 died in the prisons.

Did the Soviet revolution in Finland, repressed in 1918 by the White Guards of Mannerheim in alliance with the German rearguard of von der Golz, strike some of its enemies before falling? Probably; but the number was so small that the bourgeoisie didn’t even keep account of them. On the contrary, in this country of 3,500,000 inhabitants, in which the proletariat is not a high proportion of the population, 11,000 workers were shot by the people of order and more than 70,000 were interned in the concentration camps.

The Soviet Republic of Hungary (1919) was founded almost without bloodshed, thanks to the spontaneous abdication of the (bourgeois) government of Count Karolyi. When the People’s Commissars of Budapest judged the situation desperate, they in turn abdicated, handing over power to the social-democrats. For the three months that it lasted, the dictatorship of the Hungarian proletariat, though constantly threatened by internal plots and by the Czechoslovak and Roumanian invasions across its frontiers, killed a total of 350 of its enemies – including the counter-revolutionaries who fell, arms in hand, in local uprisings. Horthy’s courts and officer gangs killed thousands of people in “reprisals” and interned, imprisoned and maimed tens of thousands.

The Munich Soviet (1919), in response to the massacre of 23 red prisoners by the “regular” army, shot 12 hostages. After the Reichswehr entered Munich, 505 people were shot in the town, 321 of them without the slightest pretence of justice. This number included some 60 Russians picked up by chance.

There are no valid statistics on the victims of the White terror in Russia in the areas where counter-revolution and foreign intervention triumphed. But the victims of the anti-semitic pogroms in the Ukraine alone, under General Denikin, are estimated at one million. The Jewish population of whole towns (such as Fastov) was systematically wiped out.

The number of workers who died in the repression of workers’ insurrections in Germany, from 1918 to 1921, was estimated at 15,000.

I shall not record here either the names of martyrs or symbolic episodes. I am only trying quickly to give certain principles a grounding in facts. There have been too many painful experiences which should have clarified the proletariat on this point – too many dictatorships, too many White Terror regimes are still in operation for detailed examples to be necessary.

From Gallifet to Mussolini, via Noske, the repression of revolutionary proletarian movements, even when accepted and presided over by social democrats, as happened in Germany, is characterised by the evident determination to strike at the living strength of the labouring classes: in other words to physically exterminate the leaderships as far as possible.



V. Bourgeois law and proletarian law

Repression is one of the essential functions of all political power. The revolutionary State, at least in the first phase of its existence, needs it more than any other. It appears that in its three basic elements – the police, the army, the courts and prisons – the mechanism of repression and coercion does not vary. We have just made a study of a secret police force. We have gone into its most secret recesses and dirtiest corners. And we have seen its impotence. In the hands of the ancien régime, as we said, this weapon could neither save it nor destroy the revolution. We do however admit of the decisive efficacy of this same weapon in the hands of the revolution. The weapon is only the same in appearance: an institution, we repeat, undergoes profound transformation according to the class it serves and the ends it pursues.

From top to bottom, the Russian Revolution destroyed the coercive apparatus of the ancien régime. On these ruins, it triumphantly built its own apparatus of force.

Let us now endeavour to outline the basic differences between repression as exercised by the capitalist class and repression as exercised by the revolutionary class. From the general principles which a summary analysis will reveal to us, will be deduced some corollaries on the role of the police in each case.

In bourgeois society, power is exercised by rich minorities against poor majorities. A government is only ever an executive committee of an oligarchy of financiers supported by the privileged classes. Legislation aimed at maintaining in obedience all the wage workers – the majority of the population – must of necessity be very complex and very severe. Every serious attack on property must in one way or another result in the suppression of the guilty party. Thieves are no longer hanged; not because “humanitarian principles” are “making progress”, but because the balance of forces between the possessing classes and the non-possessing classes and the development of class consciousness among the poor no longer permit the judge to throw such insults at the poor. But – and we are only speaking of French law, which is of only medium ferocity – major theft is punished by forced labour; and the sentence of forced labour is carried out in such circumstances and with such “supplementary conditions” that the life of the convict is certain to be broken. Every sentence of five years hard labour means a double sentence: once set free, the prisoner is obliged to remain in the colonies for a period equal to his stay in prison; those sentenced to more than eight years hard labour are condemned to stay in Guyana for life. This is the most unhealthy of the French colonies! Banishment, the “supplementary” life sentence, also means Guyana, and is very close to being forced labour. It is the lot above all of repeated offenders in non-professional crime. Four sentences of theft, larceny etc – the successive theft of four 100-sous coins would be a case in point, and I have leafed through enough criminal files to know that this is the kind of case at issue – can lead to banishment. Or seven sentences for vagrancy. In other words, to be found on seven successive occasions on the streets of Paris with no bread and no roof over your head is a crime punishable by a life sentence. In England and Belgium, where there are workhouses and depots de mendicité (beggars’ centres), the repression of begging and vagrancy is no less implacable. One more thing. The bosses have need of man-power and cannon-fodder: the law punishes abortion implacably.

The eternal nature of private property arid wage labour being taken for granted at the outset, no effective remedy can be applied to social ills such as crime. A permanent battle is on between Order and Crime, “the army of Crime”, army of the poor, the army of the victims, of the irresponsible, who are pointlessly and indefinitely decimated. The point has still not been made clearly enough that the struggle against crime is an aspect of the class struggle. At least three quarters of common law criminals belong to the exploited classes.

The penal code of the proletarian state does not, as a general rule, allow the death penalty in criminal cases (except sometimes where the physical suppression of particular incurable, dangerous madmen is the only solution). Nor does it allow life sentences. The severest sentence is ten years imprisonment. Deprivation of liberty, a measure taken for the safety of society and for re-education, is conceived of as excluding the medieval idea of punishment, of suffering imposed by way of expiation. In this realm, and in the present situation of the Soviet Union, the material possibilities are naturally far behind the aim in view. The building of the new society – which will be without prisons – does not begin with the construction of ideal prisons. This is beyond doubt; but the impulse is there, and a thorough reform has begun. Like the legislature, the courts, from the clearest class standpoint, take account of the social causes of crime, and the social origins and situation of the criminal. Being without bread or lodging, as we have seen, is a serious crime in Paris; in Moscow it is, in a criminal case, an important mitigating circumstance.

Under bourgeois law, to be poor is often a crime, and always an aggravating circumstance or ground for presuming guilt. Under proletarian law, to be rich – even within the very strict limits in which, during the period of the NEP, individual enrichment is tolerated – is always an aggravating circumstance.



VI. Two systems – fight the effects or get down to the causes?

The great liberal doctrine of the State from which the capitalist rulers have only really deviated in wartime – when they had their own war capitalism, characterised by state control of production, strict control of trade and of the distribution of products (with rationing cards), a state of emergency etc – advocates the non-interference of the State in economic life. In political economy it adheres to the laissez-faire, laissez-passer position of the Manchester school. The State is considered to be the instrument for the collective defence of the possessing classes; a war machine against competing national groups, a machine for repressing the exploited. The administrative functions of the State are reduced to a minimum; it is under the influence of socialism and the pressure of the masses that the modem State not so long since took over the management of public education. The economic functions of the State are reduced, as far as possible, to the establishment of customs tariffs aimed at protecting industrialists against foreign competition. (Labour legislation is always a gain of the workers’ movement.) In a word, respect for capitalist anarchy is the rule for the State. Whether you produce, sell, re-sell, speculate without limit, with no concern for the general interest: it’s all right. Competition is the law of the market. Crises thus become the great regulators of economic life; they rectify the errors of the big industrialists at the expense of the workers, the lower middle classes and the weakest capitalists. Even when big trusts ruling over whole countries effectively suppress competition in vast spheres of production and trade, the old doctrine of the State, so much in line with the interests of the Kings of Steel, Coal, Salt Pork or Shipping, remains generally untouched: such is the case in the United States.

This recollection of facts which everybody should know is obligatory for us in order to make a better definition of the workers’ and peasants’ State, as in the Soviet Union, with its nationalisation of the land, minerals, transport, large-scale industry and foreign trade. The Soviet state governs economic life. It acts each day directly in the essential functions of economic life. Within the narrow limits in which it permits capitalist initiative, it controls and regulates it, exercising a double tutelage over it: by law and by what we may call direct action on the market, credit and production. The prevention of crises is one of the most characteristic features of the policy of the Soviet state. Every effort is made to eliminate crises from the time the first symptoms appear; it is not unreasonable to predict, once social development has reached a certain point, that they can be completely eliminated.

Whereas the capitalist state is content on principle only to fight the ultimate effects of social causes it does not permit itself to tackle, the Soviet State takes action on these causes. Begging, prostitution, the precarious state of public health, crime, the decline of the population and the low birth-rate, are only the effects of deep-lying economic causes. [2] After each economic crisis, crime increases; it can’t be otherwise. And the capitalist courts become doubly severe. For the troubles caused by the normal working of the capitalist economy – anarchic, irrational, governed by the egoism of individuals and by the collective egoism of the possessing classes – the bourgeoisie knows no remedy but repression. [3] The Soviet state, attacking the causes of the evil, has evidently much less need of repression. The more it develops, the more efficient, concerted and planned will be its economic activity, the less repression will be necessary, until the day when the intelligent management of production will, through prosperity, suppress social ins such as crime – which has to be dealt with by coercion in order to prevent the spread of the infection ... There will be much less thieving when no one is hungry any longer; there will be no thieving at all once abundance for all is accomplished.

Even today – and we are a long way from our goal! – our conviction is that, contrary to appearances, the Soviet State uses infinitely less repression than any other. Just think about it: in the present economic situation of Russia, would a bourgeois government not have to rule by force to an infinitely greater extent than the Soviets? The peasantry are often discontented. They find the taxes too high and industrial articles too dear. Their discontent is sometimes expressed in acts which have to be classed as counter-revolutionary. The peasantry as a whole has nonetheless given the Soviets the military victory – the Red Army consisted above all of peasants – and continues to support them. A capitalist government, restoring the land to the landowners, would have had to contain the anger of a hundred million peasants, which it could only have done by unceasing, pitiless repression. This is precisely why all the White regimes in the pay of foreign financial interests have fallen.

In its present bereft state, after years of imperialist war, civil war, blockades and famine, encircled by capitalist states, the target for financial blockades, diplomatic intrigues and war preparations, the Soviet Union, still an entrenched camp besieged by the enemy, and moreover grappling with the internal contradictions inherent in such a difficult period of transition, still has great need of repression. It would be excessively self-deluding to think that the period of counter-revolutionary attacks is over. But whatever the present difficulties of the Soviet Union and the way it reacts to them, the essential features of the Soviet state are not changed by them – nor, therefore, is the role played by repression.



VII. Economic constraint: hunger

It is moreover too often forgotten that Soviet society, in its eighth year of existence, cannot be fairly compared to bourgeois society, which has the advantage of a tradition of authority several centuries old and more than a century of political experience. Long before 1789, the Third Estate was, contrary to Sièyes’ vehement claim, a respected force within the State. The first 50 years of economic development of the bourgeoisie were no less years of atrocious class dictatorship for that. The falsifiers of official history knowingly willed into oblivion the truth about the first half of the nineteenth century. Modern capitalism, marching on to opulence, rode over the bodies of several generations of workers who lived in hovels, slaved from dawn to dusk, had no democratic rights, and gave over their eight-year-old children to the factory, to be devoured down to the very muscles ... On the bones, flesh, blood and sweat of the generations thus sacrificed the whole of modem civilisation was built. Bourgeois science ignores them. We are obliged to refer the reader to Karl Marx’s Capital. He will find in Chapter XXIII terrible pages on England from 1846 to 1866. I cannot resist quoting a few lines from it. A doctor, charged with making an official inquiry, finds that “indeed, as regards the indoor operatives, the work which obtains the scanty pittance of food, is for the most part excessively prolonged. Yet evidently it is only in a qualified sense that the work can be deemed self-supporting.” Another investigator says there are “about 20 large colonies in London, of about 10,000 persons each, whose miserable condition exceeds almost anything he has seen elsewhere in England.” “Newcastle-on-Tyne,” says Dr Hunter, “contains a sample of the finest tribe of our countrymen, often sunk by external circumstances of house and street into an almost savage degradation.” The Standard, an English conservative paper, wrote on April 5, 1866, in relation to the jobless of London: “Let us remember what these people suffer. They are dying of hunger ... There are 40,000 of them ... In our presence, in one quarter of this wonderful metropolis, are packed – next door to the most enormous accumulation of wealth the world ever saw – cheek by jowl with this are 40,000 helpless, starving people.” “The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people ... To the wealth of the country it did not the slightest damage.” (K. Marx)

To transform the sweat and blood of this people of wretches into ringing guineas of full weight, bearing the portrait of Queen Victoria; for these hopeless people, condemned by the development of mach in- cry and crises, to die in poverty, to consent to die without revolt, like tied beasts, what formidable constraint was required? But one of the principal means of capitalist constraint is clearly in evidence: hunger. It was half a century of what could be called economic terror. The worker laboured, Threatened with unemployment, threatened with dying of hunger, laboured like an industrial galley-slave, laboured like a beast, only to die of hunger in the end – after 15 short years. (We have no data on the average life expectancy of wage workers at this period, which is regrettable: such figures would sum the whole thing up.) It is still the same in our day: economic constraint – by means of hunger – is by far the most important factor, and the only really effective one, while repression only adds to it what is required to defend capitalist “order” against certain particularly worrying categories of its victims (thieves) and against revolutionaries.



VIII. Decimation. Mistakes and abuses. Control

To repeat: terror is terrible. In civil war, for every fighter – and such wars scarcely admit of any neutral parties – it is a question of life or death. Educated in the schools of the reactionaries, the working class, living under the shadow of the threat to its life, must strike its enemies to death. Prison intimidates no-one: riots too easily break down the bolted doors which can also be opened by corruption or the ingenuity of conspirators.

Another necessity impels men, at the highest point of the struggle, to resort to the terror’s ravages. From the time of the armies of ancient days, decimation is the classic way of keeping troops in obedience. It was practised during the Great War, notably on the French front after the mutinies of April 1917. This should not be forgotten. It involves executing one man in ten, without concern for the guilt or innocence of the individual. On this point, an historical observation is in order. In 1871, the Communards were more than decimated by the Versaillais. We have already quoted the moderate estimate of the number shot by Gallifet: 20,000. The Commune had 160,000 fighters. The redoubtable logic of class war – that is what the French bourgeoisie, the most enlightened in the world, the bourgeoisie of Taine and Renan! – teaches us with these figures. A class does not admit itself to be defeated, a class is not conquered, until such a high percentage of losses is inflicted on it. Imagine – a situation familiar in Russia in the heroic years of the revolution – a town of 100,000 inhabitants divided into 70,000 proletarians (I am simplifying: proletarians and related elements) and 30,000 people belonging to the bourgeoisie and the middle class, accustomed to considering themselves as forming the legitimate ruling class, educated and not lacking in material means. Is it not obvious, especially if the struggle is limited to the town, that the resistance of this counter-revolutionary force, however strongly or weakly organised, will not be broken until it has suffered some quite impressive losses? And is it not less dangerous for the revolution to strike too hard than not to strike hard enough?

The bourgeoisie has furnished the exploited classes with plenty of bloody warnings. Now they are rebounding on it. History warns of this: the more suffering and poverty they inflict on the labouring classes, the more bitterly they resist the day of reckoning, the more dearly will they pay.

Like the Revolutionary Tribunal of the French Revolution, but in general with rather less summary proceedings, the Cheka of the Russian Revolution dealt out justice to its class enemies, implacably and without the right of appeal; like the Revolutionary Tribunal, it judged less on the basis of depositions and precise charges and more on the enemy’s social origins, political attitude, outlook and ability to do damage. It was much more a question of striking a class trough the men belonging to it, than weighing up definite acts. Class justice only dwells on the examination of individual cases in periods of calm.

Mistakes, abuses and excesses appear particularly disastrous in relation to social layers which the proletariat must seek to rally to it: the middle peasantry, lower layers of the middle classes, intellectuals with no private means; and also in relation to dissidents of the revolution, sincere revolutionaries who take up objectively counterrevolutionary positions because of ideologies far removed from an understanding of the realities of the revolution. I remember the anarchists who, in 1920, when the Red Fleet was defending Kronstadt and Petrograd with difficulty against an English attack, imperturbably went on in their few boats with their old anti-militarist propaganda. I am also thinking of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries who, in 1918, strove to throw the Soviet Republic, deprived of an army and of any kind of resources, into a new war against German imperialism, which was still strong. Between these “revolutionaries” gone astray and the men of the old regime, revolutionary repression endeavoured and must always endeavour to distinguish; but it is not always possible.

In every social battle, a certain percentage of excesses, abuses and errors cannot be avoided. The duty of the party and of all revolutionaries is to work to limit these. The scale of these errors only really depends on the following factors:

  1. The balance of forces at the time and the bitterness of the struggle;
  2. The level of organisation of the action; the effectiveness of control over the action exercised by the party of the proletariat.
  3. The level of culture of the proletarian and peasant masses.

A certain cruelty results from the material circumstances of the struggle: full to overflowing, the prisons of a proletarian revolution do not, in respect of hygiene, bear comparison with the bourgeoisie’s “good prisons” in normal times. In besieged cities where famine and typhus rule, there are rather more deaths from this in prison than outside. What is to be done about it? When the jail is full of proletarians and peasants, this idle question does not bother the philanthropists in the slightest. At the time the Communard prisoners were held in the Satory camp, lying under the open sky on the bare ground, in the mud, shivering through terrible nights in pouring rain – forbidden to get up, and the sentinels with orders to shoot at anyone who did get up – a great philosopher, Taine, wrote: “These wretches have put themselves beyond the bounds of humanity ...”

Following the seizure of power, the proletariat, called to tasks without number, firstly resolves the more important: food supplies, city organisation, external and internal defence, the inventory of expropriated goods, the seizure of wealth. It devotes its best forces to them. Revolutionary repression – and this is a cause of mistakes and abuses – is left only with second-rate personnel, albeit under leaders who absolutely must be taken from among the firmest and finest of men. (This is what the dictatorship of the proletariat did in Russia, with Dzherzhinsky – and in Hungary, with Otto Corvin.) The tasks of internally defending a revolution are often among the most delicate, the most painful and sometimes the most horrific. Some of the best of the revolutionaries – men of high conscience, scrupulous outlook and unswerving character – must devote themselves to it.

Through their intervention the party exercises its control. This political and moral control – unceasing in this field as in every other – expresses both the intervention of the most conscious vanguard of the working class, and the scarcely less direct intervention of the masses of the people under the effective control of whom the party is situated in every action it takes. This guarantees the class character of the repression. The possibilities of mistakes and abuses are reduced in proportion to the forces which the vanguard of the proletariat is able to put into this sector.



IX. Repression and provocation

In the course of our study of the Okhrana we dwelt a long time on provocation. It is not a necessary technique for every police force. The task of a police force is to carry out surveillance, to get to know, to prevent: not to provoke, activate and incite. In bourgeois states, police provocation, scarcely known in periods of strength, acquires growing importance in proportion as the regime declines, is weakened and slides into the abyss. The present situation should be enough to convince us. Practically insignificant at this point in the workers’ movement in France, Belgium and England, countries of relative prosperity for capitalism, in Germany, following the revolutionary crisis of late 1923, provocation was no less important than in Russia, after the defeated revolution of 1905. The Leipzig trial of April-March 1925, known as the trial of the German “Cheka”, in which the Berlin police carried out a night-time raid on one of the defendants, Kurt Rosenfeld, reveals that the workings of the secret police of the Reich are very similar to those of the former Okhrana. In another country, where reaction has for almost two years been struggling with a popular revolution – Bulgaria – the same phenomenon occurs, but it is still more accentuated. In Poland, provocation has become the weapon par excellence of reaction against the workers’ movement. These are examples enough.

Police provocation is above all the weapon – or the curse – of decomposing regimes. Conscious of their impotence to prevent what is going on, the police incite initiatives which they then repress. Provocation is also a spontaneous, elementary action, resulting from the demoralisation of a police force at its wits’ end, overtaken by events, which cannot perform a task infinitely above its capacities, and nonetheless wants to justify the expectations and expenditures of its masters.



X. When is repression effective?

The Okhrana was unable to prevent the fall of the autocracy.

But the Cheka made a strong contribution to preventing the overthrow of Soviet power.

The Russian autocracy in fact fell rather than being overthrown. A shaking was all it took. The old, dilapidated building, whose demolition was wished for by the great majority of the population, came tumbling down. The economic development of Russia meant the revolution was required. What could the secret police do about it? Was it up to them to solve the conflict of interests of the opposing camps of deadly enemies, desperate to escape from a situation with no way out other than the class war – the industrial and financial bourgeoisie, big landlords, the nobility, the intellectuals, the déclassés, the proletariat, the peasant masses? Their actions could only gain the ancien régime a limited reprieve, and that on condition that it agreed to certain appropriate measures of general policy. How absurd was this thin line of policemen and agents provocateurs, working blindly to turn back the beating of the waves against the old, cracked, shaking cliff, ready to crumble and engulf them!

The functions of the Cheka are not so absurd. In a country divided between red and white, in which the red are naturally the majority, it seeks out the enemy, discovers him, and strikes. It is no more than a weapon, in the hands of the majority, against the minority – one weapon among many others, and an accessory one at that. It only takes on major importance because of the danger that the enemy s bullets may strike the revolution in the head. It is said that the day after the seizure of power, Lenin worked all night on the decree for the expropriation of the land. “As long,” he said, “as we have the time to get it through. Let them try to take it from us after that!” The expropriation of the lands of the nobility instantly procured the support of 100 million peasants for the Bolsheviks.

Repression is effective when it completes the effect of efficient measures of general policy. Before the October Revolution, when Kerensky’s cabinet refused to satisfy the demands of the peasantry, the arrest of revolutionary agitators only increased trouble and exasperation in the villages. After the displacement of social forces which took place in the countryside through the expropriation of the land, the interests of the peasantry led them to defend Soviet power, and the arrest of Socialist-Revolutionary or monarchist agitators – the former trying to exploit their past popularity in the countryside, the latter to play on religious feelings – removed one cause of disturbance.

Repression is an effective weapon in the hands of an energetic class, conscious of what it wants, and serving the interests of the greatest number. In the hands of a degenerate aristocracy, whose privileges are an obstacle to the economic development of society, it is historically ineffective. Let us not deny that it can be as useful to a strong bourgeoisie in decisive periods as to the proletariat during the civil war.

Repression is effective when it acts along the lines of historical development; it is impotent in the last reckoning when it goes against the grain of historical development.



XI. Consciousness of the danger and of the goal

On twenty occasions, at the height of the civil war as before the seizure of power, Lenin occupied himself with re-establishing Marx’s teaching on the disappearance of the State and the final abolition of constraint in communist society. One of the reasons he invokes when calling for the replacement of the word “social-democrat” by “communist” in the name of the Bolshevik Party is that “the term social democrat is scientifically inaccurate. Democracy is one of the forms of the State. Now, as Marxists, we are against all States.” [4] I can also recall an article he wrote, in bitter days, for the 1st of May (in 1920, I believe). The iron fist of the proletarian party was still keeping war communism going. The red terror was only somewhat abated. Beyond the heroic, terrible present, the men of the revolution kept their eyes calmly fixed on the goal. Immune to any utopianism, scornful of dreamers but unshakably attached to pursuing the basic aims of the revolution, Lenin, the uncontested leader of the first proletarian State, the moving spirit of a dictatorship, would evoke the future in which work and the distribution of its products will be governed by the rule “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

Here is the supreme difference between the capitalist State and the proletarian State: the workers’ State works for its own disappearance. The supreme difference marked by the constraint-repression exercised by the dictatorship of the proletariat, is that the latter constitutes a necessary class weapon working for the abolition of all constraint.

That must never be forgotten. This consciousness of the highest goals is also a force.

At the end of the last century, it was possible to entertain the great dream of an idyllic social transformation. Broad-minded people went in for this, scorning or twisting Marx’s science. They dreamed of the social revolution as the virtually painless expropriation of a tiny minority of plutocrats. Why should the proletariat in its magnanimity not break up the old blades and the modern firearms and grant an indemnity to its exploiters of yesterday? The last of the rich would peaceably die out, at leisure, surrounded by an atmosphere of healthy distrust. The expropriation of fit treasures accumulated by capitalists, together with the rational reorganisation of production, would instantly procure well-being and security for the whole of society. All pre-war working-class ideologies were to some degree penetrated by these false ideas. The radical myth of progress dominated. The imperialist powers were nonetheless mounting their artillery. In the Second International, a handful of revolutionary Marxists alone discerned the great outlines of historical development. In France, on the question of proletarian violence, some revolutionary syndicalists had a clear view of things ...

Capitalism, previously no doubt iniquitous and cruel but wealth-creating, now, in the apogee of its history which began on August 2, 1914, became the destroyer of its own civilisation, the exterminator of its own peoples ... After its prodigious development throughout a century of discoveries and feverish advances, scientific technique, in the hands of the big bourgeois, the bankers arid the trusts, was turned against man. Everything of use for production and for extending man s power over nature, enriching his life, was now used to destroy and kill with suddenly heightened powers. A morning’s bombing was enough to destroy a city, the work of centuries of culture. One six millimetre bullet was enough to cut short the working of the best organised brain. We cannot forget that a new imperialist conflagration could mortally wound European civilisation, which has already been so hard hit. It is fair enough to predict that due to the advance of “military art”, we shall see the depopulation of whole countries by air forces armed with the chemical weapons whose unnamed dangers were denounced in 1924 in an official document by the League of Nations – whom no-one will accuse of revolutionary demagogy! The flesh and bones of the millions of dead of 1914-1918, under their patriotic monuments, were still not enough to remove this threat from mankind. Looking the harsh realities of revolution in the face, we must not forget these things. The sacrifices imposed by the civil war, the implacable necessity for terror, the rigours of revolutionary repression, and the inevitability of painful mistakes, then appear in their rightful proportions. They are the smallest of evils compared with such immense calamities. The cemetery of Verdun alone would be more than enough to justify them.

“Revolution or Death.” This watchword from a fighter at Verdun [5] still contains profound truth. In the coming dark hours of history, this will be the dilemma. The time will have arrived for the working class to carry out the harsh but salutary, saving task: the revolution.




1. I have given an account of these episodes in Pendant la guerre civile (During the Civil War), Paris, Librairie du Travail, 1921.

2. The decline in the birth-rate worries the leaders of the French bourgeoisie considerably. The Commissions set up to study the reasons for it have quite correctly come to the conclusion that this is a phenomenon characteristic of a country of smallholders. What then can the legislator do? All he is able to do is to deliver platonic admonitions to the self-centred smallholder, who wants only one child.

3. I have already referred elsewhere to the days of June 1848. The oblivion into which this glorious and uplifting page of the history of the French proletariat has passed is much to be regretted. Time bourgeoisie of the 2nd Republic were undergoing a crisis, resulting in a rise in unemployment. They found only one solution to the unemployment problem: to provoke an uprising and then suppress it. Paul-Louis, in his Histoire du socialisme français, gives a concise picture of these events.

4. See V. Serge, Lenine, 1917, Librairie du Travail, Paris 1925.

5. Raymond Lefebvre.


Last updated on 21.3.2004