[This is a short version of a book ‘Terror and the Police State; Punishment as a Measure of Despair’, published in 2015. The book focussed on France after 1789, Russia after 1917, and Germany after 1933. The instalments will follow the 21 chapter headings that are as follows: 1 Terms of Engagement; 2 Enduring emergency; 3 Righteousness; 4 Good bye to the law; 5 Instruments of terror; 6 Civil war; 7 Waves of terror; 8 Degradation; 9 Secret police; 10 Surveillance; 11 Denunciation; 12 Fear; 13 Popular courts and show trials; 14 Scapegoats, suspicion and proof; 15 Gulags; 16 Propaganda, religion, and cults; 17 Surrealism and banality; 18 The numbers; 19 The horror; 20 The meaning?; 21 Common features; 22 Justification: Epilogue. The short version is about one quarter the length of the original. Each instalment is about 1200 words.]
If a revolution is a successful revolt, the historical justification of violence in a revolution is its success in overthrowing the old regime – plus some kind of judgment that the bloodshed and killing have all been worth it. A revolution is merely a revolt that has succeeded. If those who are revolting fail, they are liable to be executed for treason; if they are successful, they are ensainted as liberators and they form or provide the first government under the new regime.
The justification of terror or the police state must be more ongoing. In the end, the regime says that it is justified in inflicting death pain or loss of liberty on some people in order to advance the interests of the people as a whole. This will ultimately come down to a moral judgment – there are shades of a judgment that might be called political, but the ultimate criterion will be what we describe as a moral view.
For example, most countries in the West now do not believe that it is right to execute people who are found guilty of committing certain crimes – or any crimes. At bottom, this aversion comes from a view about the sanctity of human life that is part of what might be called the culture of the West, and which is at least in part derived from the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. It is no coincidence that the aversion to capital punishment does not run in many states where those creeds do not run, such as China or many Islamic nations.
On the other hand, the Western aversion to killing criminals is not absolute. It is a simple fact of political life that the Americans were not going to try Osama bin Laden, or that if they had tried him, they would have convicted him and they would have executed him. Hitler may have been tried – Churchill was against having any war trials – but all those major German war criminals knew what their end would be – and, we may be sure, they had known that for many years.
It follows that opinions about the French Terror and the Russian will change from person to person and from time to time. Those who were prepared to stand up for Stalin were thinned down when Khrushchev disowned him, and they just about disappeared with the collapse of the empire that is now so lamented by Mr Putin. For those outside Russia, the judgment of Solzhenitsyn was terminal. The Communists had expressly adopted the Jacobins as their models. The Russians had views about making a new beginning and being in the vanguard. This led François Furet to make some observations (in 1978) that have since provoked discussion.
But these two notions – of a new beginning and of a vanguard nation – are now giving way. Solzhenitsyn’s work has become the basic Soviet reference for the Soviet experience, ineluctably locating the issue of the Gulag at the very core of the revolutionary endeavour. Once that happened, the Russian example was bound to turn around like a boomerang to strike its French ‘origin’…. Today the Gulag is leading to a rethinking of the Terror precisely because the two undertakings are seen as identical’. In the first reign of terror, thousands were killed; in the second, it was millions. And in each case, to what extent did the justification being offered on behalf of the killers improve on the proposition that ‘I need to kill you so that I and others can have a better life’?
One problem for those who justify terror in the name of the state is the same for those who justify killing in the name of the state – where do you draw the line? It is like the problem that haunts all revolutionary regimes – if we could seize power by violence, what stops you from doing the same to us? Bloodshed, we know, tends to breed bloodshed. Is it the same with breaking the law? History suggests that it is. Each of the American, French and Russian revolutions led to frightful civil wars, as had the first revolution in England in the seventeenth century; the combination of violence and terror offered by the Nazis was in this and other ways unique, and no sane person seeks to justify any aspect of the Third Reich. When you destroy the source of the law, you let in lawlessness.
It is not enough to say that Robespierre was in pursuit of a political ideal called liberty, whatever that might mean, or that Osama bin Laden was in pursuit of a spiritual ideal of one true faith – or that his pilots were driving into the arms of seventy-two black eyed virgins. Something more than slogans and abstractions is required. The facts are rather less clear or virtuous than the theories. When the French Terror ended with the killings, as part of that same process, of Robespierre, Couthon and Saint-Just, it was in the hands of three professional revolutionaries, all three trained as lawyers, who had always been longer on intellect than humanity, and whose driven didactic virtue was fast going down the drain of a murderous amour propre. Indeed, young Saint-Just was burying his memories of a misspent youth in a relentless hatred of the enemy that had turned him into a cold killing machine. That kind of end calls for some human response other than justification.
Nor were you likely to take any comfort from any justification of the French Terror offered by the old school who liked to write history about a ‘class war’ that for all we know only existed in their imagination. Albert Soboul accepted Robespierre’s proposition that ‘virtue’ as a fundamental principle of democratic or popular government ‘provides the guarantee that Revolutionary Government does not turn into despotism’ Soboul then said that the Terror purged the nation of groups considered to be ‘socially unassimilable, either because of their aristocratic origin or because they had thrown in their lot with the aristocracy’ or that ‘the Terror had the effect of cutting off from the rest of the nation elements incapable of being assimilated into society, either because they were aristocratic or because they had attached themselves to the aristocracy.’
The first proposition is falsified by all history, not least that of Robespierre; the second is falsified by the evidence and is morally revolting. ‘If your membership of a group means that in our judgment you cannot live with us, you will be liquidated’ is a maxim that could not have been improved on by Stalin. It would be in bad taste to refer to Hitler, but he did seek precisely to implement that world view. Nor is it surprising to find Robespierre tersely noting that ‘the word virtue made Danton laugh.’
It remains, then, to say something about those who were responsible for our three reigns of terror, in France, Russia, and Germany. Is it too simplistic to say that Stalin and Hitler were evil but that the French terrorists were not? Those driving what we call the Communist Revolution may or may not have had altruistic notions about working for others, but before Lenin died, the basis of Stalin’s regime was set, and most now agree that the original scheme was flawed in any event. Both Lenin and Stalin were in truth guilty of appalling crimes against humanity – Lenin possibly being the more morally culpable on the ground of hypocrisy alone – and their reputations are not as bad as they might have been mainly because Hitler and Mao would prove to be even more murderous. The only thing that can be said in favour of Hitler is that he entered into a pact with Stalin which Hitler broke and for which Stalin killed him.