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Abstract

This review looks back at Leon Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky,
republished by Verso in 2007 and introduced by Slavoj iek. After providing an overview of Kautskys
criticisms of the October Revolution and Trotskys rebuttal, the historical scholarship of Lars Lih and the
philosophical efforts of iek are presented to refute the reigning consensus on Trotskys
authoritarianism from the civil war period. Lih and iek argue for a new understanding of Trotskys
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 ieks Lacanian interpretation of
Trotskys legacy and the historical problem of Stalinism.
Review of Slavoj iek presents Leon Trotsky's Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky
(Verso, 2007)
The publication of this book by Verso offers us an opportunity to review the important and controversial
work of Leon Trotskys Terrorism and Communism1. With the new forward written by Slavoj iek, and
the scholarship of Lars Lih, one can finally re-open the historical and political debate concerning
Trotskys authoritarianism under War Communism. Here, historical context is crucial, as iek and Lih
both emphasize the dire circumstances the Bolsheviks faced during the Russian civil war. And this
situation was more than dire according to Lih: it was--as Trotsky put it--in the highest degree tragic:
The world war and then the civil war had drained Russias 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 grainInflation 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 valorized as not only constituting a necessity, but a political
advance. Hence, what became known as War Communism, i.e. grain requisition by force, the
militarization of labor, 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, Trotskys war-time polemic. It is a book more prone to misinterpretation, due
to the fact of Trotskys direct role in the process of transforming society along War Communist lines.
However, Lih performs 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 fetishized by Trotsky as some dystopian vision of what Marx might
have called barracks communism.

1
2

Trotsky, 2007.
Lih, 2007, p. 119.

Following the lead of Lihs scholarship, iek makes an attempt to continue in a similar direction, in
order to break out of the mythology surrounding Trotsky. Throughout his foreword to Terrorism and
Communism, iek entertains many ideas and hypotheses to make the Russian Revolution and its
aftermath in Stalinism intelligible through Lacanian psychoanalysis. However, while one can appreciate
ieks contribution as significant, it is arguable 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 Trotskys main
target in the essay was Karl Kautskys 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 how 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 they were not ripe for. And because
the Bolsheviks faced a hostile sea of peasants, while putting all their hopes into a European revolution
that failed to materialize, they restored to 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
country3.
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
was mostly occupied with a historical discussion of the nature of the Paris Commune), Kautsky claimed
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 pretense 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.
Kautskys polemics demanded an immediate response from the Bolshevik leadership. Despite Kautskys
waning repudiation 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 muchKautsky at one time wielded a great authority in the ranks of the Second
International as the theorist of Marxism. 5

Doland 1993, pp. 232-235.


Kautsky 1973, p. 201.. See also Doland, ibid, p. 239.
5
Trotsky 1961, p. xxvii. Quoted from the 1961 Ann Arbor edition of Trotskys Terrorism and Communism, p. xxvii.
4

Trotskys response was threefold: to counter the criticism that the Russian proletariat was not ready for
revolution, to critique Kautskys conception of democracy, and to defend Bolshevik methods in waging
civil war and reconstructing the country economically. First, Trotsky argues how Kautskys 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 and advancements of the productive forces and
social struggles, leaving Kautsky and others behind. But it was Kautskys attachment to the old
equilibriums maintained by parliamentary parties, trade union leaders, etc., that made it impossible for
him to appreciate the new situation 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 in reality, according to Trotsky, the Russian proletariat didnt have such a
luxury of waiting for such ideal circumstances to come. 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 selfannihilation for a whole historical period.6
Second, Kautsky 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 banditsto 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 favor 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 majoritys behalf. Trotsky repeats Marxs 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
6

Trotsky 2007, p. 98.


Trotsky 2007, p. 22.
8
Trotsky 2007, p. 24.
7

parliamentary and executive power. The Soviets do not just statically reflect a majority: they enable the
majority to create its own policies.
Such parliamentary fetishismof limiting the scope of the proletariats 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, Kautskys attitudes militated against such a possibility
from ever becoming real: Instead of the radicalization 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 try to undermine the revolution--the methods
of repression and terror are 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 principlei.e., repudiates measures of suppression and
intimidation towards determined and armed counterrevolutionmust 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 Kautskys 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 for 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 Kautskys
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
9

Trotsky 2007, p. 12.


Trotsky 2007, p. 26.
11
Trotsky 2007, pp. 62-63.
10

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 reorganize its industry, or re-create itjust 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 did 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 labor service; the militarization of labor, 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 behindand
incapable of appreciating the new dimensions of class struggle that workers must confront after seizing
power.
Lih on the Militarization of Labor
Today, for most significant assessments of Trotskys Terrorism and Communism, it is still those chapters
on the militarization of labor which prove the most controversial. A consensus about these chapters is not
only held by bourgeois scholars of the revolution, who condemn Trotsky as an authoritarian for
authoritarianisms sake, but also for those who genuinely sympathize with Trotsky, and are considered his
disciples. For Trotskys socialist critics (including Issac 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 criticized for promoting a substitutionist or authoritarian Marxism.
Accordingly, Terrorism and Communism deserves the repudiation as Trotskys worst book, because it
supposedly fetishizes authoritarian policies12.
However, all of these conceptions of Trotsky are effectively demolished in the course of Lihs essay. For
Lih, Trotskys militarization plan was not a substitute for constructing socialism, but a concrete response
to a national crisis. Trotsky, as Lih points out, only meant militarization 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 in the midst
of complete economic collapse brought on by war.
For Trotsky, the model of an army comes with it 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 militarization,
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 hostilities13.

12
13

Deutscher 1976, pp. 516-517. Mandel 1979, p. 48. Cliff 2003.


Lih 2007, p. 122.

According to Lih, readers sometimes gain the impression that Trotsky actually 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 word trudovaia povinnost functions in Terrorism and Communism. Lih understands the
word to mean labor duty, which is something of a moral obligation for anyone living under a workers
state, different from compulsory labor, which Trotsky analytically distinguished as only a 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 labor 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 labor 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 emphasizes 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 militarization of labor
could not be a successful one if the majority of the working class did not support it as an absolute
necessity. Trotsky indeed implies throughout his writings that once these crises stabilize and cease, the
need for such brute compulsion will decrease. Hence, contrary to the myths of Trotskys valorization 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 more available by the rise of 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 iek
With Lihs account, one can reasonably argue that Trotskys 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 Lihs arguments, we can see Trotskys policies of 1920 as having a much
more utilitarian and pragmatic character than a metaphysical one.
iek presents us with similar material from Lih in his forward, and it is advantageous that he uses this
historical evidence to problematize the relation between Trotsky and Stalinism. But iek invokes Lih
with a psychoanalytic twist: Trotskys Terrorism and Communism represents something more

14

For the distinction between labor duty and compulsory labor, see Lih 2007, p. 124 Also Lihs researches have
showed that the compulsory methods used were not as authoritarian as the consensus amongst some Trotskyists and
most historians suppose. See for instance Lihs arguments that the militarization of labor did not entail for Trotsky
the entire economy being subordinated to the army, but a shock logic that would put crucial industries under a war
footing, with workers in such industries placed in a privileged position of having more rations. This privilege
galvanized workers to actually petition to have such a status conferred on their 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.

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 iek calls the Bolshevik unconscious.
One notices iek moving Lihs historical reconstruction of Trotsky to his more Lacanian territory. As a
result of this operation, 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 iek is a selfgrounding 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 iek is denied any
transcendental guarantee, and must be affirmed as a matter of subjective commitment. But this
Kierkegaardian leap into struggle--as iek 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.
iek starts his forward with 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 iek 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. iek remarks that this image of Trotsky makes one almost sympathetic to Stalins anti-Trotskyist
wisdom. But iek claims Terrorism and Communism is the symptomatic text that frustrates this
gentrification, since it is indirectly close to Stalin. iek goes on to entertain the idea, shocking to more
liberal interpretations of Trotsky, that Terrorism and Communism places him in the company of Stalin
as far as he is an advocate of terror. iek even cites a rumor that Stalin was a great admirer of Trotskys
civil war polemic as he read it with much enthusiasm and kept with him a heavily underlined copy 16.
iek is aware of how bad a press Terrorism and Communism has, even in the ranks of Trotskys
sympathizers: Terrorism and Communism is disowned even by many a Trotskyist, from Isaac
Deutscher to Ernest Mandel (who characterized it as Trotskys worst book, his relapse into antidemocratic dictatorship.) But, in an ironic twist, iek says we need to reclaim Trotskys book on the
terrain of Stalinism, i.e. on the terrain of terror and industrial mobilization. It is here that one can find
a a minimal but crucial difference between Trotsky and Stalin 17
What that minimal difference is for iek we will come to soon. But iek first wants to understand the
circumstances in which the Bolsheviks found themselves in 1920. He argues that Terrorism and
Communism relies, like Lenin, on the 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, iek does nothing to really challenge this caricature of
Bolshevik euphoria in its faith in the West, and leaves the charges as they are. Instead of looking at and
16
17

iek in Trotsky 2007, p. ix.


iek 2007, p. ix.

analyzing these historical blunders concretely, he washes away the crucial historical junctures in
emphasizing the problem in terms of a psychoanalytic drama. Such a drama ignores and doesnt
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 chances in the West were ultimately illusory, the program of socialism in one country
becomes legitimate against the perspective of Trotskys permanent revolution.
iek is at his best when he repeats Trotskys 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 erected is a bourgeois
dictatorship. Rather, proletarian dictatorship is a form of how the working class actively mobilizes (in
ieks words) its own forces and thus to create a new majority. But iek 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
iek 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 Marxism20. But such Lacano-decisionism seems unwarranted even at first blush
with reading Trotskys text, since Trotsky does not advocate voluntarism against Kautskys 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 didnt merely impose its will onto
history, but recognized 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
ieks 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
Freuds image of Rome, iek 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
18

Trotsky 1987.
iek 2007, xviii.
20
According to iek, Lenin and Trotsky are still have a mixed relationship to Second International Marxism, in
light of Lenins Materialism and Empiriocriticism polemic, and Lenin and Trotskys praise for the good Kautsky
before the war against the bad Kautsky after the war. See iek 2007, p. xvii, p. 179.
21
Trotsky 2007. p. 98.
19

his ideas on market socialism), for the sake of avoiding a real return to the repressed in the figure of
Trotsky22.
Trotskys repression from Soviet memory re-enacts for iek Freuds 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 is central to the
core of the very state itself. This finds a perfect analogy in ieks Lacanian categories: Trotsky becomes
a stand-in for the Real, and exists spectrally and parasitic to the Symbolic space of Stalinism.
iek 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 Hlderlin does in Lukacs essay
Hlderlins Hyperion, the intransigent fidelity to the heroic revolutionary utopia. This argument is
seemingly at odds with ieks earlier critique of Trotskyism in Revolution at the Gates, where
Trotskyism represents a Hlderlin-like abstract fidelity to the revolutionary proletariat which prevents it
from embracing what iek calls a repeating but not a returning to Lenin 23. But here, iek embraces
the abstract Jacobinism of a voluntaristic Trotsky permanently at odds with any manifestation of
Thermidorian reaction.
Against the pessimism of Lukacs endorsement of Stalinist Thermidor then, iek maintains that
Stalinism wasnt a necessary historical a priori, and cites Lenins fight against bureaucratic degeneration
and Trotskys critique and struggle against Stalinism. It is here that iek 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 iek, Stalinism is
the triumph of the Symbolic over the effaced Real. But it is arguable here that ieks construes Stalinism
as necessary in a different way than in just a historical sense, namely, as part of an unresolved dialectic
between the Real and the Symbolic. We notice too in ieks Lacanian lens that the struggle waged
against Stalinism becomes less a concrete political program and strategy and more of an opposition to
Stalinist humanism in favor of an abstract Real.
It is here that iek reveals an inability to properly conceptualize the problem of Stalinism, and is at a
loss to tell us whether or not Trotskys program presented a real alternative. iek 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 in turning Trotsky into a signifier for
an abstract utopianism, and this presupposes in iek a deeper fatalism about the necessity of Stalinism.
For him, it is clear that Trotskys 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 Stalins support from the middle cadres which explained Stalins triumph. But
unfortunately, this doesnt 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 Stalins own
impressionistic one as to why Stalin rose to power. iek argues that Stalin was fully aware of why he
succeeded, as the latter emphasized the middle cadres as being decisive in his defeat of Trotsky and his
22

iek 2007, p.xix.


iek, 2004. p. 308
24
iek 2007, p. xxiv.
23

consolidation of power25. The ossification and betrayal of the Bolshevik legacy is merely ascribed to
Stalin handpicking the cadres for the new soviet aristocracy, and it ignores much of Trotskys own
account of the rise of bureaucratic domination. But iek here ignores Trotskys body of critique of
Stalinism.
Trotsky and the Messianic Fever
ieks last sections of his foreword mention a utopian fever that sustained the Bolsheviks in the years of
civil war--a fever that isnt reducible to illusions historians allege the Bolsheviks had over War
Communism. iek 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 Muntzer), we come across an interesting discussion of Alexander Bloks The Twelve26.
However, what is exceptionally odd about ieks discussion of this poem of catastrophe and utopia is
its neglect to even mention Trotskys own account of the poem, which puts these images of The Twelve in
a different and more critical light. ieks 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 that The Twelve is Bloks 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 remained non-revolutionary:
The Twelve is not a poem of the Revolution; because, after all, the meaning of the Revolution as
an elementdoes 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 Bloks pastBlok 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 rampant27.
In ieks maneuvering to bring Trotsky closer to an abstract utopianism, the latter is assimilated into the
ranks of what iek describes as an apocalyptic modernism. He reads Trotskys 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 beautyhomosexuality was outlawed, sexual promiscuity
condemned, and marriage proclaimed the elementary cell of the new society. Here, iek is ambiguous
as to whether the utopian energies Trotsky championed in Literature and Revolution meant a worse threat
25

iek 2007, xxvi.


iek 2007, xxvii.
27
Trotsky, 2005. p. 109
26

than Stalinism to the very coordinates of the revolution itself. Trotskys 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 iek detects in Trotsky might have shaked the very coordinates of the
dream itself, and it is possible that Stalinism became a necessary check to the excess of the Bolshevik
unconscious.28
This hypothesis of ieks, that in order for the revolution to survive, Stalinism became a necessary stopgap and limit to Trotskys messianic, futurist voluntarism is intelligible in terms of ieks Lacanian
categories of the Symbolic and the Real. What is cited as Trotskys biopolitical dream, or the modernist
passion for the Real as being necessarily repressed by Stalinism, follows ieks idea of the Real as being
only parasitic to a Symbolic space. To search for a Real beyond the Symbolic--to actually escape these
invariant structures--is an illusory pursuit which must dissipate in the reassertion of a Symbolic register.
Thus iek 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 Zizeks foreword with a psychoanalytic exegesis of Trotskys dream of Lenin,
recounted in his diary in exile from 1935. In Trotskys dream, he meets a Lenin who does not know he is
dead, but still thinks he is alive and still working towards communism 29. iek 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 then is 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 ieks spectral Lenin, like Derridas spectral Marx, can only provide formalistic
criteria for what repeating the truth of Leninism is. Lenin represents the undead Idea of communism
(here for iek cast in the Badiouian sense of Idea) that transcends, like Hlderlins fidelity to
Jacobinism, the brute positivity of the world in favor of an abstract Idea affirmed for its own sake, even if
it is inevitably repressed.
Conclusion
iek ends the foreword on a sublime, yet pessimistic, note in invoking Hegels 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. iek asks us to accept Hegels immanent critique as also
apropos of the Russian and Chinese revolutions30. But this entails that the abstractions of the utopias and
28

iek 2007, xxx.


Zizek 2007, xxx. From Trotskys 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
iek 2007, xxxi.
29

dreams of the Bolshevik leadership, like the dreams and absolute freedom of the Jacobins, necessarily
had to dissipate into their opposites.
We can appreciate ieks 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 iek 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 cannot help but dissipate into a new Symbolic order any
more than Hegels 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 ieks understanding of the Russian Revolution and its fate.
Since there cannot be any permanent resolution to our passion of the Real, and since iek 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 ieks 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 ieks statement that all
revolutions have to betray themselves, since alienation and antagonism are inevitable features of life.
Stalinism, for iek, cannot help but be the Lacanian truth of Bolshevism 31.
iek 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 pretense 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.
iek admires the undead signifiers of the revolution (Lenin and Trotsky) to those who assert the
Symbolic over an authentic commitment to the Real. Thus what we see in this minimal difference is
actually a relativization of the struggle Trotskyism waged against Stalinism, replaced by a dance of
Lacanian categories taking the place of real events.
To conclude, ieks intervention is an important one in that he promotes Lihs reconstruction of
Trotskys work and at least attempts to rescue Trotskys Terrorism and Communism from undeserved
calumny and oblivion. He challenges us to read Trotsky anew, free of stereotypes and clichs. But, like
ieks reading of Lenin and other figures of revolutionary Marxism, one of the unfortunate effects of his
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.
31

See Robinson and Tormey essay on iek and Lenin, where they argue persuasively how ieks Lacanian
ontology makes the idea of emancipation extremely problematic: Robinson, Andrew and Tormey, Simon, 2003.

Review by Harrison Fluss


Stony Brook University
hfluss@ic.sunysb.edu

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