Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil: The Red Terror

I am working on an article called ‘Towards a Materialist Doctrine if Evil’, which may form the basis of a chapter in a book on Stalin. So here are some first and possibly provocative thoughts on the crucial role of the Red Terror in such a doctrine.

One of the most significant steps in the development of a doctrine of evil is the Red Terror. I understand such a Terror as the struggle against the counter-revolution, the success of that struggle being then the success of the revolution itself. Within that struggle, the Terror peaks at certain times, such as that following the assassination attempts on Lenin or Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s. Here theory is born of practice and events, a nascent theory of the strength and power of evil. I mean not that the Red Terror is itself an evil, as so much anti-communist propaganda would have it, but that the Terror is a response to evil. In order to lay out that argument, I distinguish once again between external and internal factors. The identification of external evil is the easier option, while the awful awareness of the internal nature of evil is an awareness gained with much pain. The following traces a path from external to internal, from threats outside a new communist state to ones that emerge from its internal workings. Needless to say, I now focus squarely on the far more interesting features of a post-revolutionary situation, where real practical and theoretical innovation may be found.

Little argument is needed for the point that the Red Terror is necessary to deal with external foes, for a communist revolution must counter the international efforts to crush it. Even before the success of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, the tsar had made an agreement with powers like France and Germany that they would assist the tsar in countering the effects of the 1905 revolutionary upsurge. These international efforts became even more intense after 1917, when the ‘Entente’ – UK, France, Germany, USA, Canada and others – enacted an economic blockade and provided troops, equipment and logistics to the White Armies during what is euphemistically called the ‘civil’ war. Less than two decades later, Nazi Germany would pick up the banner of the international cause that sought to crush communism in the USSR. A similar situation may be found with the long struggle of the Chinese Revolution, during which these powers provided significant assistance to Chang Kai-Shek’s Guomintang in its efforts to wipe out the communists. After 1949, they continued their efforts, whether through the Korean War, through economic blockades, or through diplomatic isolation. In these cases, the Red Terror played a crucial role in defeating the international counter-revolution.[1]

More important is the internal role of the Red Terror. In Russia, the first peak of the Terror followed the assassination attempts on Lenin and others in 1918. After the near fatal shooting of 30 August of that year,[2] the militant Stalin suggested a systematic mass terror against those behind the assassination attempt, but also against opponents of the new government. So the government directed Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, to commence what was officially called a Red Terror.[3]

Of course, reactionary commentators salivate over such a development, seeking to attribute as much to Lenin as possible (Figes 1998, Gellately 2007, Volkogonov 1994, Werth et al. 1999). It matters little for my analysis whether he or others approved the Red Terror, from arrests and imprisonment to the execution of the Romanov family, but what is important is the fact that it happened in response to an act of terror. That is, the Red Terror was not an initiator of violence, but a response to anti-revolutionary violence. It was thereby a response to the concrete reality of evil, a rude awakening to how vicious and desperate the internal forces opposed to the revolution really were. The belief in the inherent goodness of human beings came face to face with the deeply troubling realisation of human evil.

What of the oft-cited ‘excesses’ of the Red Terror, such as the summary executions of suspected saboteurs? One element here is the uncontrolled nature of revolutionary violence. It typically runs its own course, straying here and there in the euphoria of the moment. More significantly, a Red Terror may be seen as the belated outburst of deep patterns of working class and peasant anger at the long and brutal oppression by the former ruling classes, an oppression that makes any Red Terror look tame by comparison. In Russia, the long history of capricious and vicious violence at the hands of the landlords, factory tyrants, Black Hundreds (recall the frequent pogroms), and tsarist troops were remembered. Now at last was an opportunity to settling old scores, since the workers and peasants were finally in control. In this situation, Lenin’s argument in The State and Revolution (1917 [1964]), that the dictatorship of the proletariat must smash the bourgeois dictatorship, found ready acceptance and was enacted through the Red Terror.[4]

Perhaps the greatest peak of the Red Terror as a practical working out of a doctrine of evil is that of the purges and ‘show trials’ under Stalin in the 1930s. Through repeated condemnations of Cold War propaganda, these have become the epitome of Stalin’s ‘paranoia’ and brutal ‘dictatorship’.[5] Their initial cause was the assassination in December 1934 of Sergei Kirov, head of the Leningrad Communist Party. As with the assassination attempt on Lenin in 1918, this was the trigger for seeking out the enemy within, resulting in more than 726,000 executed. The ‘Great Terror’ reached a climax between 1936 and 1938: the trial of the Sixteen, of the anti-Soviet Trotskyite Centre, of the generals (most notably Marshall Tukhachevskii), and of the Twenty-One. Eventually, nearly all the Old Bolsheviks were caught up in the purge, including Grigory Zonoviev, Lev Kamenev, Karl Radek, Nikolai Bukharin, and Leon Trotsky. In the purge of the Red Army alone, 34,000 officers were arrested (although 11,500 were reinstated), including 476 senior commanders.[6] However, I am less interested here in the public relations disaster that the trials became, in the widespread debate at the time, with the defenders of the trials outweighed by those who condemned them, even in the fodder they provided for Cold War propaganda.[7] Instead, I wish to focus on the way they reveal a more realistic (and arguably pessimistic) assessment of the propensity to evil.

The key to the trials, as well as the purges, is their over-compensation for the lack of properly robust doctrine of evil, and the way they produced a nascent theory of the internal dialectic of evil. Although they may have weeded out wavering elements in Stalin’s push towards collectivisation, as well as sections of the Red Army that may have been less than resolute during the soon-to-come struggle with Hitler’s massed forces (for by far the main struggle and thereby locus of victory was on the Russian front), the sweeping nature of the trials and purges, along with the relocations of parts of the population who resisted Stalin’s moves, indicates an effort to compensate for an overly benign view of human goodness. It may be relatively easy to identify the enemy without, but the enemy within is a very different matter.

I would like to identify two moments when the new theoretical awareness of the dialectical nature of evil began to work its way to the surface, the one individual and the other collective. Let me begin with the individual confessions given in the trials, for they indicate not so much cowering before the threat of coercion or even the result of such coercion (the common position of those who condemn the trials), but the fact that those charged owned the confessions. That is, even if they had not committed all the acts confessed, they came to believe that they were in fact true. The confession of Bukharin is the paradigm of this process. This central figure in the communist party, with senior roles – among others, member of the Politburo, secretary of the Comintern, chief editor of Pravda and author of major works – and for a while Stalin’s closest ally, fell out due to his opposition to Stalin’s move leftward, especially the push to undertake rapid collectivisation. His initial confession, the spectacular withdrawal, the reinterrogation, admission to the totality of the crimes but denial of knowledge of specific crimes, 34 letters to Stalin (written from prison) with their tearful protestations of loyalty and admission, the four books written, and then his conduct in the trial in which he subtly criticised the very confession he had made, even to the point of questioning the out-dated role of the confession itself – all these illustrate the sheer impossibility of locating the dividing line between good and evil.[8] Above all, Bukharin’s last plea plays out all these contradictions in extraordinary detail. Once again he admits all his guilt in opposing the rapid push towards communism, even in plotting to overthrow the government, but then he turns around to question and deny individual charges, saying at times that he can neither deny nor confirm a charge own admission (Bukharin 1938, 767-79). The most telling section is when he identifies within himself a ‘peculiar duality of mind’, even a ‘dual psychology’ that was caught in the contradiction between a degenerating counter-revolutionary tendency and what he calls a ‘semi-paralysis of the will’, a contradiction that was in turn generated by ‘objective grandeur of socialist construction’. He is nothing less than the Hegelian ‘unhappy consciousness’ (Bukharin 1938, 776-77). I suggest that this extraordinary text reveals a deep awareness of the impossibility of distinguishing between guilt and innocence, for we are all so in any given moment. So he concludes: ‘The monstrousness of my crime is immeasurable especially in the new stage of struggle of the U.S.S.R. May this trial be the last severe lesson, and may the great might of the U.S.S.R become clear to all’ (Bukharin 1938, 779).

On a collective level, it is telling that the Great Terror was very much a public experience, and not the shady and covert program that it is so often depicted to have been. It involved mass participation, with widespread belief in the guilt of the victims. Everyone was encouraged to inform on and denounce anyone suspected of sabotaging the economy, of acting on behalf of a foreign enemy, or of efforts to undermine the government. Popular enthusiasm for the self-cleansing was almost universal. It is de rigueur to decry such mass brutality, but this reaction misses the collective nature of the old communist process of self-criticism. Here, the self-examination for failings in fostering the cause becomes a collective venture that seeks to strengthen the body through purging what is harmful. But such purging threatens to become a never-ending process, not because one needs to find continual scapegoats for failure to achieve the goals of the cause, but because the closer one draws to the goal, the more frantic become the forces of evil. Perhaps the most astute awareness of the awful nature of evil comes from Stalin himself. At a plenum of the party’s central committee in early 1937, Stalin observed:

We must smash and throw out the rotten theory that with each forward movement we make the class struggle will die down more and more, that in proportion to our success the class enemy will become more and more domesticated … On the contrary, the more we move forward, the more success we have, then the more wrathful become the remnants of the beaten exploiter classes, the more quickly they turn to sharper forms of struggle, the more mischief do they do the Soviet state, the more they grasp at the most desperate means of struggle (Daniels 1993, 261).[9]

The more grace is apparent, the more desperate becomes the devil – or so would the same theory be expressed the traditional theological terms. However, here we need to be careful, for Stalin still tends to externalise the threat, glimpsing its full possibilities only fleetingly. The first half of the text identifies the dialectic of struggle: tensions and conflicts do not cease the closer one nears a desired goal; they become even more exacerbated. The easy option at this point would be to speak of external, international threats, which were real enough. And often he linked the internal struggle with outside forces, seeing the former as a fifth column. However, the real struggle is collectively internal, with the beaten ruling class redoubling its efforts to defeat the communist cause. But here he stops. He does not go the next step and ask from where the threats within the party come, why it is that prevarications, doubts, resistance, seem endemic even to the party faithful. Such a statement reveals a nascent theoretical elaboration of what I am calling a materialist doctrine of evil, but it still stops short.


Boer, Roland. 2013. Lenin, Religion, and Theology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bukharin, Nikolai. 1938. Report of Court Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet ‘Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites’ Heard Before the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR, Moscow, March 2-14, 1938. Moscow: People’s Commissariat of Justice of the USSR.

Cohen, Stephen. 1980. Bukarin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography 1888-1938. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daniels, Robert Vincent, ed. 1993. A Documentary History of Communism in Russia: From Lenin to Gorbachev. Burlington: University of Vermont Press.

Figes, Orlando. 1998. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. Harmondworth: Penguin.

Furr, Grover. 2011. Khrushchev Lied. Kettering: Erythros.

Gellately, Robert. 2007. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Koestler, Arthur. 2006 [1941]. Darkness at Noon. New York: Scribner.

Larina, Anna. 1994 [1988]. This I Cannot Forget: The Memoirs of Nikolai Bukharin’s Widow. Translated by Gary Kern. New York: W. W. Norton.

Lenin, V.I. 1917 [1964]. “The State and Revolution.” In Collected Works, 385-497. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2008. Stalin: Storia e critica di una leggenda nera. Translated by Marie-Ange Patrizio. Rome: Carocci editore.

Resis, Albert, ed. 1993. Molotov Remembers: Inside Kremlin Politics. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Roberts, Geoffrey. 2006. Stalin’s Wars: From World Qar to Cold War, 1939-1953. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Service, Robert. 2004. Stalin: A Biography. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Tucker, Robert C. 1988. Stalin as Revolutionary: 1879-1929. New York: Norton.

Tucker, Robert C. 1990. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941, New York. Norton.

Volkogonov, Dimitri. 1994. Lenin: A Biography. New York: Free Press.

Werth, Nicolas, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, and Stéphane Courtois. 1999. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[1] The definition of a successful communist revolution is one that defeats the counter-revolution and then has the peace to begin the process of constructing socialism.

[2] After the bullets missed Lenin on 14 January, two found their mark on 30 August. One hit his arm and the other was embedded in his neck and spilled blood into a lung. They were fired by Fanya Kaplan, the Socialist-Revolutionary, and they left Lenin clinging to life. Even here, external forces seemed to have played a role, with the British agent, Robert Bruce Lockhart, engaged in inciting a plot to overthrow the Soviet government due to its efforts to seek a eace treaty with the Germans (Cohen 1980).

[3] It was officially announced in an article called ‘Appeal to the Working Class’, in the 3 September 1918 issue of Izvestiya. A couple of days later the Cheka published the decree, ‘On Red Terror’.

[4] By comparison, in China one of the most telling instances of counter-revolutionary brutality of the Guomintang before 1949 was the practice of shooting, without question, any woman found with natural feet and short hair. The assumption by the forces of Chang Kai-Shek was that any such woman was obviously a communist.

[5] Roberts tellingly demolishes this psychological argument, developed most fully by Robert Tucker (1988, 1990). For Roberts, it was more of a political paranoia, not entirely unjustified by the forces ranged against the communists (Roberts 2006, 17-18).

[6] For many Western Marxists, these purges have become the litmus test of romantic socialism. In this light, Stalin ceases to be a Marxist at all, betraying the revolution due to chronic paranoia and for the sake of his own aggrandisement. It also enables many Western Marxists to dismiss the Russian Revolution as a successful revolution, leading to the curious position that the true revolution is yet to come. I have argued elsewhere that this is clear manifestation of the bewilderment and resentment by Western Marxists that a successful revolution has not happened in the West (Boer 2013, 207-9).

[7] For instance, even the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR at the time, Joseph E. Davies, found the trials fair (Larina 1994 [1988]). By contrast, at the time the trials marked either the conversion to Trotskyism or the break with communism completely by many Western communists. The debate continues today, with some repeating Cold War denunciations and others tracing the profound effect, on the reception of Stalin, of Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ at the Twentieth Congress of Communist Party of the USSR in February 1956 (Service 2004, Furr 2011, Losurdo 2008). It is worth noting that the trials fooled the High Command of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, who believed that the Red Army had been weakened by the loss of many of its leading commanders. This faulty assessment led them to believe that they would take Moscow in short order, only to find that the Red Army had been renewed and strengthened (Roberts 2006, 15-19).

[8] The trial and Bukharin’s behaviour has perplexed observers ever since. Apart from the dismissal of the confessions as coerced, some have suggested it was the last service of a true believer in the cause, that he used Aesopian language to turn the trial into a one of Stalin himself, indeed that he subtly pointed to his innocence while ostensibly admitting guilt. These interpretations not so much misread the material, but they manifest at a formal level precisely the tension at the heart of a materialist doctrine of evil (Cohen 1980, Larina 1994 [1988], Service 2004, Koestler 2006 [1941]).

[9] Stalin repeated this observation often at the time, as Molotov recalls (Resis 1993, 254, Roberts 2006, 18).


12 thoughts on “Towards a Materialist Doctrine of Evil: The Red Terror

  1. But what about Stalin’s position in this? If Bukharin had an unhappy consciousness, then what about the general secretary himself? You seem almost to elevate him from such matters, are you saying he was exempt in any way from self-criticism. Personally, I feel too many people in the Stalin era were, that self-criticism was applied too one-sidedly and that people like Lysenko benefitted from this.

  2. Before you go any further you need to study Furr’s ‘The Murder of Sergei Kirov
    History, Scholarship and the Anti-Stalin Paradigm’.

    I say ‘study’ rather than read because the structure of the book and it’s aim make it difficult to understand.

    In form it’s a critical historiography of Kirov’s murder, not a history. But in the process it gives a history. On top of that there a number issues. To extract the htory you have to go backwards and forwards several times; at least I did. It’s well worth the effort.

  3. There’s also this, by Losurdo–if the link doesn’t work, it’s from Vol. 16, No. 1 (2003) of the journal Nature, Society, and Thought:

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.