Although not on a scale similar to the Bolshevik revolution, the premises conveyed by Leon Trotsky have replayed themselves in American society.
This month marks the 100-year anniversary of Red October, an armed Bolshevik-led insurrection and catalyst for the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. During the ravages of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, Communist leader and founder of the Red Army, wrote “Terrorism or Communism,” a book scathingly critical of Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky. The book is not just a response to Kautsky’s polemics against the Bolshevik Revolution, but also further justification for using violence as a means to the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary ends.
In his chapter on terrorism, Trotsky denounces Kautsky’s view that by eliminating the free press, the Soviet government, “has destroyed the sole remedy that might militate against corruption… control by means of unlimited freedom of the press alone could have restrained those bandits and adventurers who will inevitably cling like leeches to every unlimited, uncontrolled power.” Considering this seminal work of one of the Soviet Union’s founders, it becomes clear that this ideology has resurfaced in the United States. Whether those practicing the premises of “Terrorism or Communism” know they are doing so is a different question.
‘This Problem Can Only Be Solved by Blood and Iron’
To Trotsky, “The Press is a weapon not of an abstract society, but of two irreconcilable, armed and contending sides. We are destroying the Press of the counter-revolution, just as we destroyed its fortified positions, its stores, its communications, and its intelligence system. Are we depriving ourselves of Cadet and Menshevik criticisms of the corruption of the working class? In return we are victoriously destroying the very foundations of capitalist corruption.”
A civil war was being waged to collapse capitalism. Thus, Trotsky was unconcerned with liberal pillars such as freedom of the press, as this freedom was insignificant within the larger context of a revolution, one in which violence was justified in the quest for a dictatorship of the proletariat. Bloodshed was necessitated on the belief that, “to make the individual sacred we must destroy the social order which crucifies him. And this problem can only by solved by blood and iron.”
The rest, is well, history. Trotsky was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1928 and assassinated in his home in Mexico under the order of Joseph Stalin in 1940. Initial efforts to silence the press evolved, throughout the history of the Soviet Union, into an elaborate system of censorship and propaganda. All speech was loosely interpreted as subversive, and thus the Gulags swelled with political prisoners, especially during Stalin’s regime.
Corruption became a mainstay of the Soviet political system, and continues to pervade Russia today. Russia continually scores low on indices of press freedom, and journalists are silenced or disappear frequently. Vladimir Putin continues to consolidate power. Thus, when considering this bit of Soviet history, two elements present themselves in the context of the modern United States.
The Reasons We Restrict Our Press
The first is restriction of press freedom as required for a lofty, collective purpose. Trotsky believed a free press was unnecessary, considering the violent goals of civil war. What then of a war of a global scale, with arbitrary definitions and a fuzzy enemy: the global War on Terror?
Media outlets have not been shuttered on a large scale in the United States. However, government whistle-blowers were prosecuted at an alarming rate by the Obama administration, with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies actively spying on and subpoenaing journalists. Pressure placed on journalists in an effort to silence them and discover their sources was ratcheted up during the Obama administration, setting a precedent for all future presidential administrations, including our current president, Donald Trump.
All of these efforts were justified under the premise that press freedom takes a secondary role to the collective goal of fighting terrorism and protecting Americans. Thus, the administration implied that these efforts to silence journalists and their sources was paramount to journalists’ efforts to uncover corruption and abuse of power taking place in the name of the global War on Terror.
Perhaps the modern Trotskyist quote could be: “Are we depriving ourselves of citizens’ criticisms of their government? In return we are victoriously destroying terrorism!” The size and scope of this government action is thus daunting considering the justifications, which reverberate premises used by Trotsky justifying suppressing the free press during the Bolshevik Revolution.
From Free Press to Free Speech
And the second premise? Underscoring the revolution was not only the need to engage in violence to implement the Bolsheviks’ political objectives, but also the need to secure adherence to this political ideology. Eliminating the free press, and subsequently free speech of all types, not only limited societal constraints placed on the Bolshevik revolution, but also ensured society’s adoption of a single ideology by silencing and ultimately eliminating all competing ideas. This idea also seems to have come back into play on U.S. college campuses today.
Student activist groups are continually attempting to prevent and ultimately eliminate speech from campuses that contradicts their own ideas, as well as speech that serves as a possible hindrance to activists’ collective goal of implementing their social justice agenda. Countless cases have occurred (recall Middlebury College and the University of California, Berkeley), in which the announcement and arrival of a speaker on campus has provoked not just protest, but violent protest.
Protest is free speech. Violent protest is an attempt to silence and obstruct. From this we can see that an attempt to silence is an attempt to further a cause by placing it within a vacuum devoid of competing ideas. Academics who support the silencing of other academics with views contrary to their own place themselves among the censors of the Soviet Union who stamped out any thought deemed offensive to the Politburo.
Thus, in this way, the premises conveyed by Trotsky’s “Terrorism or Communism” have replayed themselves to some degree in American society. Granted, this is not on a scale congruent to the Bolshevik revolution. However, the justification of silence for a larger, collective goal is unnerving, both among our government and the growing activist movement in U.S. colleges and universities.
Any effort to infringe on liberty in the name of a collective goal must be viewed with suspicion. History teaches us that liberty truly is a safeguard against violence and a worldview forced upon us.
Tyler Bonin is an economics and history instructor in North Carolina and a graduate of Campbell and Duke Universities. He is also a former U.S. Marine and veteran of the Iraq War. Find him on Twitter @TylerMBonin.