Revolutionary State Terror

Of the two basic types of state terror–that against external targets and that against domestic targets, that directed against one’s own people seems the most tragic, but that is a subjective perspective. Whether it is tragic or a great accomplishment depends on how one views the state sponsored project (probably a revolution) being defended. In the end, states–more precisely, regimes–like themselves, not “their” people. Regardless of one’s opinion about any particular act of state terror against the domestic population, terror is key to ambitious projects, be they state-sponsored revolutions (e.g., post-1917 Russia, Pinochet’s destruction of democratic Chile, Boumedienne’s subversion of Algeria’s popular war for independence for the people, the social reversal the Taliban seeks in Afghanistan, or the U.S. super-rich plot to impoverish the middle class [entailing harsh suppression of the Occupy Movement]). It may be worth noting that state terror also has its uses simply for defending the status quo (e.g., Mubarak vs. Tahrir Square), but that is another story. Concerning state terror to implement a revolutionary change, Chilean sociologist and specialist on the Pinochet era Tomas Moulian notes:

Las dictaduras revolucionarias, que son un tipo especifico y diiamos ‘superior’ de dictaduras, nacen de la poderosa aleacion entre Poder normativo y juridico (derecho), Poder sobre los cuerpos (terror) y Poder sobre las metes (saber)….lo que tiene peso decisivo es el terror… [Chile Actual, Arcis Universidad, 1998, 22.]

A revolutionary dictatorship arises from the conjunction of legal power, power over bodies, and power over minds, with the key being the power over bodies…i.e., terror.

This very pessimistic view of politics may inspire one to search for counter-examples, but supporting evidence is not hard to find. One nice story arguing for an alternative to Moulian’s dark assessment might be the rise of popular recognition in the West that black-skinned folks were human. Slavery was peacefully brought to a halt in England, following which dramatic progress in peaceful evolution of popular attitudes in the U.S. occurred during the 1840s and 1850s. Thanks to Garrison, Douglas, and a host of less famous radicals leading a society whose politicians were as usual dragging behind, “revolutionary democracy” appeared to be working, but of course we all know the sad ending–it would require a war of conquest by Lincoln to shove change down the throats of the Southern landowning aristocracy, so even this story ends up supporting Moulian. As for the above mentioned Algeria, its colonial and post-colonial history support Moulian in spades. But the most elegant evidence is provided by Solzhenitsyn’s Law As a Child chapter reviewing the imposition of state terror by the conquering Red Army from 1917 on. One might imagine that the Algerian generals, the Chilean generals,  the Argentine colonels, and Sherman in Georgia were all holding Solzhenitsyn’s analysis in their left hands as they terrorized their people with their right. Moulian definitely has his finger on a pattern.


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