lukacs on terror

We present here to readers of The Commune a little-known article by the leading Marxist philosopher George Lukacs.  Well known for his History and Class Consciousness, it is sometimes forgotten that Lukacs was an active Hungarian communist during the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919.  Lukacs fought in the ranks of Hungarian Red Army, but the republic of which he was a leading member was suppressed by foreign intervention. The following article challenges the hypocrisy of Social-Democracy on the question of violence – the term terror having a different meaning from its current use. This first appeared in the Workers’ Dreadnought, a communist paper published by Sylvia Pankhurst, on August 21, 1920.  Chris Ford


Social-Democratic Lies Concerning the Question of Terror

by George Lukacs 

 Social-Democrats, and especially the “Independents,” [Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany] are in the habit, of asserting that no real difference exists between the aims of the Communists and those of the Social-Democrats, and that it is only on questions of tactics that they are divided; one of these prime tactical differences being centred round the question of the terror. They too desire Socialism; but what they cannot accept from the Communists, and what they must fight against with the most (appealing “moral” arguments at, their command, are the terrorist methods used by the Communists for the attainment of the common ideal.

These, and such-like assertions, conceal two lies. Firstly, it is not true that the Social-Democrats unconditionally reject the weapon of the terror. They do not. They are simply not disposed to use this weapon for the victory of the proletariat. And further, it is necessary to dispose of the lie that the Social-Democrats (the “Independents” included) earnestly desire the accomplishment of Socialism. They do not, and the refusal to use the power of the proletariat is only a mask for concealing the fact that social democracy has ceased to be a party of the revolutionary class war, and that it is anxious for naught but the achievement of such reforms and conquests as are possible within the framework of capitalist society. The so-called tactical difference conceals in reality an essential difference of character.

It is not now our task to enter into an analysis of the terror. It will suffice! if it is understood that the terror is the institutional and organised use of power; by one group or class of men against another, in order to compel the latter —irrespective of their convictions—to assume an activity or passivity advantageous to the interests of the former. From this point of view, so-called constitutionalism —the reign of law—is also a reign of terror. It is distinguishable from an open and acknowledged terrorism only in so far that in “normal times” it does not encounter any material opposition. When such opposition is not forthcoming for some considerable period, it appears to the ordinary, man that the fear in which he stands of the power which is always ready to enforce the law, is an entirely voluntary submission on his part. But as soon as the condition of class opposition assumes an acute form—which does not necessarily imply a revolutionary situation—“constitutionalism” throws off its mask and reveals its terrorist character. Class contentions can only be resolved by force, and each class will regard the methods used by the other as terroristic. To give a simple and not, strictly revolutionary example : The capitalist speaks of every important strike as an act, of terrorism on the part of the Trade Unions against the free labourer, whilst the worker sees a terrorist act in the protection accorded to the strike-breaker by the power of authority.

It is not true to say that the social democracy dooes not use, and has never used, the weapon of the terror. In does; and it is precisely in its manner of using it that the petty-bourgeois influence on social democracy is perceivable. The power of the proletariat is distinguished from the power of the bourgeoisie by the fact that the terror of the former is confessed and unconcealed. Open declaration of terrorism is not a “moral” question, but results simply from the fact that by this means the nature of the (terror as a class weapon becomes apparent. It suits the bourgeoisie to conceal this class character, for only thus does it find it possible to attach to itself that considerable section of society which belongs neither to the proletariat nor to the bourgeoisie, and which, from lack of class-consciousness, is in a state of perpetual vacillation. For the proletariat, on the contrary, it is of the utmost importance that the class character of power should be clearly understood by all sections of the proletariat. The necessity for this is due not merely to the fact that by this manner alone can the militant preparation and revolutionary class-consciousness of the worker develop, but also to the fact that only a clear understanding of the inevitability of violent class conflict, and the impossibility of “democracy” between classes, and the practical application of this knowledge, can produce that true democracy within the proletarian class, which is preliminary to the true democracy of a classless society.

Social democracy has always operated with its power masked, according to bourgeois precedent. In consequence of this it could never tolerate true proletarian democracy within the organisations of the class war—the Parties and trade unions—but instituted instead a terror operated by the leading bureaucratic section against the will of the masses.. Anyone who knows the working-class movement well will be in a position to quote hundreds of examples in corroboration of this contention. It was precisely because social democracy sought to employ the essentially violent and terroristic weapons of the class-war in a “legitimate” manner, but it found itself compelled, whenever the true nature of the working-class movement betrayed itself in violent, revolutionary action to oppose it and confine the movement within “legal” channels. The strike policy of social democracy furnishes abundant illustrations of this fact. The nearer the class-war approaches to the decisive, revolutionary epoch, the more transparent the tactics of Social Democracy become. “Democracy” is obliged to extend its protection to the bourgeois and bourgeois society, for, as the class-war,’ becomes more open, solutions by compromise become less efficacious, and it becomes more and more impossible to conceal by coaxings and blandishments the terror directed against the working class. The suspension and betrayal of wages disputes was the first step along this eventful path. This was followed up by the forcible maintenance of the truce concluded with the bourgeoisie during the War. These defenders of “democracy”, these opponents of terrorism from motives of principle and morals, at first adopted the weapon of denunciation against the revolutionary working class (Liebknecht and the German Social Democracy are instances), and then sought, by diverting the revolutionary movement into the paths of ” legalism,” to convince the workers of the advantages of the policy of collaboration adopted during the war. When, however, the revolution entered on the phase of actual and open conflict, these men, who detested the terror, brought to bear every terrorist weapon of the bourgeois State against the revolutionary aspirations of the working class—machine-guns, criminal tribunals, and espionage. For us Hungarians it is not necessary to turn, to Scheidemann and Noske for illustrations. Was it not Payer who had the miners of Salgotarin shot down? Was it not the “Socialist ” police of the Government of Kunfiand Garami who beat Bela Kun and his prison comrades almost to death ? Was it not the hirelings of Peidl and Payer who arrested Ottoi Korvin and delivered him to the executioner? Those facts require no confirmation.

 Social Democracy employs the terror when the bourgeois State, of which it has constituted itself protector, demands it, and it applies it as circumstances require. It only rejects the terror in principle, and contests it with “moral” weapons when the proletariat proposes to use the terror in its own revolutionary interests. We can see now how “tactical” questions are disguised. It is quite clear that social democracy does not reject the terror from principle (it asserts that merely to deceive itself). Its opposition extends solely to the class-conscious and revolutionary weapon of the proletariat. The apparent campaign against the White Terror does not disprove our assertion. Whoever observes this campaign closely will perceive that it is directed solely against the “abuse” of the bourgeois terror, and simply demands that it should be “restricted to legal limits”; it does not insist upon its complete ‘and absolute abolition—which, in our opinion, can be effected only by the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

We will not dilate on the demand of Payer and Co. that only the “guilty” should be brought to account, and the “innocent” be allowed to go free, which means simply that opportunity should be given for the oppression of the proletariat by social-democratic police spies, assisted by the trade union bureaucrats and Ministers, Secretaries of State, etc. The demand

The demand of the “Independents,” too, is simply that the terrorist detachments should be disbanded and replaced by the legal instrument of oppression, the bourgeois State (gendarmerie, police, legal tribunals, etc.).

The main distinction between the White Terror and the bourgeois State is that the Terror suppresses the workers ‘without the assistance of social democracy. A consequence of this is that the Party and Trade Union bureaucracy is, against its will, compelled to desert the oppressor and side with the oppressed, without, achieving thereby any insight into the nature of the oppression, and without acquiring a proletarian class-consciousness.

It is part of the essential character of the class-war that no hard and fast line can be drawn between means and ends, between principles and tactics. When Social-Democrats sever the problem of force from the problem of achieving Socialism, when they speak “generally” of force and, independently of the  “general” problem of achieving Socialism, they not only confuse issues with regard to force, but also with regard to Socialism. The class war knows of no tactics which renders the application of force superfluous. The question of force, therefore, can only be considered in conjunction with the purpose in view; whether it is to be used against the proletariat, or in the interests of the proletariat. In any concrete instance the question is solely one of tactical superiority, as to which weapon can best serve the interests of the proletariat at the given moment. Social-Democrats, however, reject terrorism and force “in general.” They do not offer1 to oppose the increasing terror of the bourgeoisie by the terror of the proletariat; in a word, they preach anti-terrorism, but, in deed, they employ violence against the proletariat. Is it, in these circumstances, to be expected that the workers should believe the word which professes to be for Socialism, while every deed is opposed to it? The organised power of the proletariat ensures a steady approach to Socialism, while every true Communist knows that Socialism cannot an be achieved at a single blow, but by stages, provided that each stage is a revolutionary one. To reject the path is to reject the goal. Socialist society is not a prize that will be offered to the strenuous pleasure-tripper at the end of his journey. Rather the journey is itself the piecemeal conquest and the development of Socialism—the revolutionary process of the proletarian class war – the sole path and the sole measure of revolutionary progress.