Revolutionary Violence, Communism and the American Left
March 12, 2013
CH: So you think this twentieth century idea of revolutionary movements is over?
NC: It’s not just twentieth century. There are very rare occasions when you can even raise the question and we are not anywhere near those occasions. If you want to raise the question abstractly in a philosophy seminar okay you can discuss it. So we can discuss are there circumstances in which it might be justified to take up arms to overthrow a repressive government. Yea, sure. For example, I was in favor of the conspirators who tried to kill Hitler. I think that was a good thing to do. I was in favor of the partisans who were resisting the Nazis. I think you can give many cases in which resistance to oppression, terror and violence is justified, I am not a pure pacifist. So I can imagine. However, I think it carries a very heavy burden of proof and the burden of proof is always on those who choose violence. Sometimes the burden can be met in my opinion, but its a heavy burden. Now we are in a philosophy seminar, unrelated to the real world. But if we are talking about the real world, which is what I happen to care about, I don’t see much point in discussing it. So I don’t know the revival you are talking about.
CH: In conjunction with this, there has been a renewed interest in the Jacobin legacy. There are new writings on reevaluating, defending and justifying the Terror in addition to justifying Robespierre and his vision of a revolutionary France. This is something that is promulgated by some on the left who still have connections with Twentieth Century Communist ideas like Leninist Vanguardism. What is the legacy of Jacobinism and Leninism on the left?
NC: They are quite different first of all. In the case of Jacobinism, we could discuss it but now we are back in a philosophy seminar, an interesting one. There is an interesting question as to what should have been done, what were the proper actions to have been taken in revolutionary France. I don’t happen to agree with Robespierre’s methods at all.
Now let’s move to Leninism. They are totally unrelated, no relation whatsoever. Leninism was in my view counterrevolutionary. It wasn’t instituting communism. There was a popular revolution, in fact there had been for years, through 1917 it grew very substantially from February on. Lenin basically tried to take control of it. If you take a look at his writings in 1917 they went way to the left. April Thesis, State and Revolution the most radical things he ever wrote, almost anarchist. My view is that it was basically opportunism. I don’t think he believes a word of it. It seems to me that he was trying to associate himself, become the leader of the revolutionary popular forces. When he became the leader, he didn’t waste much time, and Trotsky helped him, in instituting a pretty repressive regime with the basic elements of Stalinism. They moved pretty quickly to dismantle most of the organs of popular power. Not over night, but over a short time they were able to basically dismantle the soviets, the factory councils, to convert the labor force into a labor army. The peasant revolutionary forces were very much opposed to this incidentally. As distinct from Marx who saw revolutionary potential in the Russian peasantry, the urban communists, like Lenin were strongly opposed to that. In fact, a lot of Marx’s later work was even suppressed, because they didn’t like what he was saying. It wasn’t Marx but their contempt for the backward peasants. Their conception was that Russia is a backward peasant society, it has to be driven towards industrialization and then out of that the iron laws of history will lead to socialism and so on but sometime in the future. In fact, they regarded Russia as a backwater. They were essentially waiting for a revolution in Germany, the most advanced capitalist country, that’s where there should be a revolution. When the revolution was crushed in Germany in 1919, by that time Russia had been pretty much turned into the kind of labor army that Lenin and Trotsky were advocating, not totally but mostly, Kronstadt kind of finished it all. When the German revolution was crushed they realized that’s not going to work, so we have to do something else to drive Russia towards industrialization. Shortly after that comes the New Economic Policy which is essentially lets introduce state capitalism but with an iron fist, because we are going to drive them forward. This is Lenin’s vanguardism.