State Terror

Trotsky defined state terror—in the specific case, “Red Terror” by the new communist dictatorship of which he was a leader—in brutally honest terms as “орудие, применяемое против обречённого на гибель класса, который не хочет погибать” [a tool used against the class doomed to death that does not wish to die] [Trotsky, “Terrorism and Communism,” as quoted in Wikipedia]. Other historical examples of the use of this tool are easy to list–the French against the Cathars and then some 800 years later in the Battle of Algiers or the Algerian state itself against Muslim activists in the 1990s or a long list of Latin allies of Washington in their campaigns against the likes of Guatemalan Miskitos or Chilean democrats, etc. And regimes of the 21st century show no sign of being remiss in taking advantage of this tool, but few will be likely in our more sophisticated new century to defend state terror with Trotsky’s brutal honesty, so it may be instructive to keep his remark in mind as we read our daily papers. Our more cultured speech conceals how similar the tools of state still are.

The historical pattern of political marginalization leading to dissent that provokes government repression that easily morphs into state terrorism which in turn leads to terrorism by non-state actors has been clearly visible in the historical record for centuries. At each step, this pattern, so dangerous for society, can be reversed government action: inclusion rather than marginalization, targeted police action rather than state terrorism. Yet the pattern persists: the dynamics that led to terrorist behavior by both the French government and non-state Christian political actors in 16th century France are essentially indistinguishable from those evident in, say, the Russian civil war, Algeria’s civil war or current Muslim resistance to Western military attack. Why such self-defeating behavior (from society’s perspective) reoccurs so often regardless of century, class structure, culture, political system, or religion is a question critically requiring understanding, given the obvious prominence of this problem today.

Marginalization–>Dissent–>Repression–>Non-State Terrorism–>State Terrorism

To state that terrorism is bad for society does not mean that it is necessarily considered by leaders to be bad. Leaders may see state terrorism as the most effective means of combating terrorism by non-state actors and may encourage non-state terrorism by actors with whom they share goals. Leaders may also see non-state terrorism as a convenient excuse for consolidation of power. In fact, state terror and terrorist attacks on the state by non-state actors have frequently worked quite well…for the leaders. Lenin in the Russian civil war, Pinochet, and the Algerian generals who led the 1991 coup all won great personal victories through state terror; Western leaders today repeatedly score political points by exploiting terrorist attacks:  only society loses. In short, leaders may find both state terrorism and terrorism against the state to be useful.

Moreover, non-state actors may also calculate that they benefit from terrorism. Thus, terrorism may result not just from outrage at being marginalized by the political system but from the efforts of a dissident faction to wrest control of the dissident movement away from another dissident faction. The overlapping complexities of a situation in which not only is the state provoking and manipulating terrorism to consolidate its power but various dissident factions are also provoking and manipulating terrorism as part of their internal struggle for control of the dissident movement is perhaps best illustrated by the Algerian civil war that followed the 1991 army coup. [See, for example, Louis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire, Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats (Paris: La Decouverte, 2005.]

The psychological dilemma constitutes an overwhelming obstacle to approaching the whole issue of terror rationally. First, most leaders find almost irresistible the temptation to meet violence with violence and outrageous violence by non-state terrorists against the innocent with more outrageous violence by the state against the innocent—the state is very unlikely to be able to identify its real opponents and thus almost certain to provoke more opposition by engaging in state terrorism rather than slow, careful police action. The inconsistent time delays between cause and effect enormously increase the temptation by leaders to engage in behavior that is likely to be counterproductive over the long term. State terrorism may have an immediate positive effect on non-state terror, even though it will provoke a rise in dissent over a slightly longer time frame, and that “slightly longer” time frame may well extend beyond the leader’s time in office. The ultimately successful strategy of political inclusion is fraught with peril and may take decades to work, while a careful strategy of police action against terrorists will also be likely to produce effects more slowly than a terrified population wants. The vicious and ultimately counterproductive French tactics of the infamous “Battle of Algiers,” for example, were highly popular [Benjamin Stora, Histoire de la guerre d’Algerie (1954-1962), (Paris: La Decouverte, 1995, 25.]—among the privileged French residents who controlled the colonial regime–even though they led directly to the collapse of French rule in Algeria and nearly provoked civil war in France. As Camus warned:

…peut-on survivre comme people sans render justice, dans une mesure raisonnable, a d’autres peuples? La France meurt de ne pas savoir resoudre ce dillemme. [See William deB. Mills, “The Fallacy of Defending Democracy With Repression: Algeria,” in Historical and Literary Lessons.]

A policy of inclusion instituted at the beginning of a period of dissent may succeed rapidly enough to avoid dissident terrorism in the first place. FDR accomplished exactly this with the New Deal. Unfortunately, leaders, elites, and favored groups of citizens jealously guarding power and privilege are often unwilling to adopt such an approach until the marginalized dissidents turn from peaceful dissent to violence, and since dissidents almost always have less formal military power than the state, they will find the fateful last step toward terrorism hard to resist, just as the threatened elite power structure will find state terror against any political opposition hard to resist. Indeed, the state will typically define any use of force by dissidents as “terrorism,” conveniently ignoring the fact that the state has, by refusing to compromise, manipulated the dissidents into using force.

The result is an all too common cycle of violence in which each small increment of dissent is met by an official overreaction that further radicalizes the opposition. In 1535, the French regime met a French protestant propaganda campaign in which extremely rude placards were distributed to the population with a year-long campaign of arrests that ended up driving large numbers of French to emigrate to Switzerland…including John Calvin, [Janine Garrisson, Royaute Renaissance et Reforme 1483-1559 (Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1991, 210-211)] who thus became a far greater thorn in the side of the French royal rule that he probably ever would have become had he not been driven away. In the event, rather than solving the problem of religious dissent (seen in Paris, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, as an attack on the king’s right to rule), the king’s harsh over-reaction led to a century of French civil war.


A sketch of the key events of the initial decade of the post-WWII Algerian independence movement illustrates the fatal spiral of violence in which the state mistreats the weak, delays reforms until too late, overreacts, and thus aggravates the situation. This pattern has characterized the whole story of the Algerian people’s struggle for freedom from the earliest days of the French invasion until today. (Pieces of this tortured story are revealed by Guy de Maupassant in the 1850s and Albert Camus a century later.)

  • Setif/Guelma 45

  • Anti-French terror kills several score

  • French military responds with two-month-long massacre of population

  • Nov 1 54 – 30 terrorist attacks provoking France immediately to send troops, with little evident consideration of any effort to conciliate the vast, still pacific majority that included not only the average Algerian but also the traditional Arab political party, the MTLD

  • Nov 5 – pro-independence organization MTLD dissolved and leaders arrested;

  • 100s of militants forced underground and join insurrection

  • Jan 55 – France announces reform program to address anti-Algerian discrimination

  • Feb 55 – French regime falls, leaving reform program on the shelf

  • Mar 31 55 – state of emergency in Algeria

  • Mid-55 – Algerian governor promises integration and reforms

  • Aug 55 – full-scale insurrection


The new Soviet state promptly established the policy of overreacting to any provocation, using extreme state terror both to defeat its active opponents and warn off opposition by any considering active opposition.

  • Suspected anti-Bolshevik uprising in Nizhny Novgorod – Lenin responded by calling for “mass terror”

  • Penza kulak uprising to protest grain requisitions – Lenin responded by calling for killing kulaks as example

  • Uritsky killed – Bolsheviks killed 500 in reprisal

  • Pravda 9/3/18 – concentration camp for anyone who spreads rumors against regime

  • 10-15K summary executions by Bolsheviks in first two months of official terror campaign according to Bolshevik media

In both the Algerian and Soviet cases, not just individuals but groups seen even as potential adversaries were treated, to use Lenin’s word, as “insects” to be exterminated. These extreme methods contained the seeds of the destruction of the revolutionary movements’ ideals. Just as the extermination of all insects destroys agriculture, the extermination of political opponents cuts off the flow of alternative ideas into policymaking, thus leading to the degradation of governance. Thus, both the Soviet and Algerian revolutions were betrayed, leaving behind corrupt regimes controlled by self-serving leaders, a phenomenon not restricted to revolutionary regimes. It was no coincidence that both societies suffered horrifying civil wars, that the Soviet dictatorship lasted barely three generations, and that neither Russia nor Algeria has yet to invent honest, effective governance or secure civil liberties.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s