“Whoever does not see class struggle leads unavoidably to armed conflict is blind.” [i]

Red Terror was decreed formally in the Soviet Union on September 3, 1918, through an order of the People’s Commissar for Inland, Gregory Petrovsky. He ordered the end of benevolence, imprisonment of the right-wing SRs, and the arrest of hostages among the bourgeoisie and officials. Executions would be summary.

By Américo Gomes.


This happened after the murder of the Soviet Information Commissar, Moises V. Volodarsky, on June 20 of 1918; of the chief of the Cheka in Petrograd, Moises Uritsky, leader of the Bolshevik party;[ii] and, on August 30th, the attempt against Lenin, by Fanny Kaplan. She shot twice against Lenin. One bullet pierced part of his left lung, stopping near his right clavicle, and the other one hit the left shoulder. This attempt was partly responsible for the weakening of his health, which set the basis for the posterior strokes and death.

Bourgeois Terror

The Red Terror followed the revolutionary tradition of “Terror”, which had been used in all revolutionary processes, particularly in the bourgeois revolutions like the Puritan Revolution – also known as the English Civil War, where Oliver Cromwell decapitated Charles I; Danton’s and Robespierre’s French Revolution, and the First North American Revolution of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. In these processes, the bourgeoisie had a progressive role in the struggle against Feudal society.

The Jacobins’ Terror was much bloodier than that of the Bolsheviks: the French Revolution cut the heads of militaries in Nantes, Lyon, and Vendee. Only in Paris, 1,376 people were guillotined in nine days, after the Law 22 of Prairial,[iii] in a France of 25 million inhabitants. Before this, Lenin explained, “They criticize us for using Terror. However, we do not use terror as the French revolutionaries, who guillotined unarmed people, and I hope we will not use it so. When we imprisoned we said, <We will let you go if you sign a paper promising not to commit acts of sabotage>.”[iv] For Robespierre, “the attribute of the popular government in the revolution is at the same time virtue and terror, a virtue without which the terror is fatal, terror without which the virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice, prompt, severe and inflexible; thus emerging from virtue.”[v] For Thomas Jefferson, “In the necessary struggle, many condemned people fell without the formalities of trial and with them, some innocent. […] It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machinery not as blind as bullets and bombs, but blind to a certain extent.”[vi]

Actually, the terror exists as an instrument of class oppression since before the Middle Age, but then it became a formula of the owner classes to maintain the poor classes under their control. During the ruling of Henri VIII, 70,000 thieves, young and old, were executed. Elizabeth I hanged three to four hundred poor per year. In France, with Luis XVI, all men from sixteen until the seventies who worked were sent to the Welsh.[vii]

Marx turned it into a scientific premise, “Barely a means to curtail, simplify and locate the bloody agony of the old society and the bloody labor pains of the new, barely a means revolutionary terror.”[viii] For Victor Serge, “There was never a war, never a revolution without terror […] In short, the problem posed to overcome the civil war is the same posed to overcome a war among States. It involves annihilating a part –the lesser – of the adversary’s living forces and demoralize and disarm the rest.”[ix] For Dzerzhinsky, “Terror is an absolute need in times of revolution.”[x]

Counter-revolutionary Terror

However, the bourgeois Terror was not used just to make the advance of the revolution: it was also used in the 1848 June Revolution in France by General Cavaignac, ex-commander in Algeria, who shot 1,500 rebels. Without a right to defense, he condemned 12,000 workers to prison and deported 4,000 to Algeria. Engels wrote, “After five days’ heroic struggle, the workers were defeated. And then followed a bloodbath of the defenseless prisoners, the likes of which as not been seen since the days of the civil wars which ushered in the downfall of the Roman republic. It was the first time that the bourgeoisie showed to what insane cruelties of revenge it will be goaded the moment the proletariat dares to take its stand against them as a separate class, with its own interests and demands. And yet 1848 was only child’s play compared with their frenzy in 1871.”[xi]

In the Paris Commune, Thiers’s repression killed at least 50,000, where 20,000 to 25,000 were shot after the battles. There were 43,000 prisoners, 3,000 in concentration camps, 4,000 deported and 5,000 condemned with different sentences. In comparative terms of violence, the Commune shot 60 hostages.

Francesco Ricci, in the article “Paris Commune (1871): anticipating the Petrograd Commune (1917)”[xii] says, “In the annals of the years preceding the Paris Commune, massacres similar to the one that bourgeoisie carried out ferociously after the fall of the first workers’ government in history are hard to find. We have to go back as far as the day when 6 000 slaves from Spartacus’ army were crucified along the Via Apia by Crasso so as to restrain anyone who might rebel against Rome.”

Once again, Engels, “It was only after eight days’ fighting that the last defender of the Commune was overwhelmed on the heights of Belleville and Menilmontant; and then the massacre of defenceless men, women, and children, which had been raging all through the week on an increasing scale, reached its zenith. The breechloaders could no longer kill fast enough; the vanquished workers were shot down in hundred by mitrailleuse fire [over 30,000 citizens of Paris were massacred]. The “Wall of the Federals” [aka Wall of the Communards] at the Pere Lachaise cemetery, where the final mass murder was consummated, is still standing today, a mute but eloquent testimony to the savagery of which the ruling class is capable as soon as the working class dares to come out for its rights. Then came the mass arrests [38,000 workers arrested]; when the slaughter of them all proved to be impossible, the shooting of victims arbitrarily selected from the prisoners’ ranks, and the removal of the rest to great camps where they awaited trial by courts-martial.”[xiii]

Victor Serge writes something similar on the massacre of the Revolution in Finland, 1917, “Repression was atrocious, hundreds of working women and children were killed, over 300 bodies were picked up from the streets. Mannerheim sieged Tammerfors, where 10 red militiamen, led by Russian officers resisted fiercely. The struggle went house to house, a street battle that lasted for several days. 200 Russians were shot, among them Bulatzel and Mukhanov, 2 000 were massacred and 5 000 became prisoners. The decisive battle took place in Tavastehus, between Tammerfors and Helsingfors. It is estimated that 10 000 people were massacred there, men and women. The total massacred by the white is around 30 000 proletariats, besides, 70 000 were interned in concentration camps. Medical reports show in the first 26 days 2347 prisoners died and the average mortality rate in these camps was 400 per week. All organized workers were shot or are imprisoned.”[xiv]

The “Popular Front” government formed by Frederich Ebert’s Social Democracy harshly repressed the 1918 German Revolution. The “Freicorps” (trained and prepared for the civil war tasks) under the command of the Social Democrat Gustave Noske, the “bloodhound,” caused a great massacre and killed Rose Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

In the massacre of the 1927 Chinese Revolution, 547,000 were killed. Of these, 25,000 in the Stalinist adventure in Canton, in December. According to official statistics, 30 million people were killed by the Nazi regime. The Latin American dictatorships, particularly the Chilean, with 20,000 deaths, and the Argentinian, with 30,000, do not stay behind on the killings. Just as with the Algerian revolution, where there is no official number of victims but thousands can be counted, or with the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people carried out by Zionists.[xv]

In Brazil, the violence against the insurrectionist sailors in the Revolt of the Lash (Revolta da Chibata in Portuguese; T.N.) in 1910, created a historical precedent showing how there is no pacifism among the national bourgeoisie.

By the end of 1937, Trotsky wrote in The Lessons of Spain: Last Warning, “When the workers and peasants enter on the path of their revolution – when they seize factories and estates, drive out old owners, conquer power in the provinces – then the bourgeois counter-revolution – democratic, Stalinist, or fascist alike – has no other means of checking this movement except through bloody coercion, supplemented by lies and deceit. The superiority of the Stalinist clique[xvi] on this road consisted in its ability to apply instantly measures that were beyond the capacity of Azaña, Companys, Negrin, and their left allies.”[xvii]

The current bourgeois terror acts in general with exceptional savagery to execute its class enemy. A defeated revolution or a defeated revolutionary process, independent of its losses, will always cost more to the proletariat than a triumphant revolution, independently of the sacrifices it may demand.

The Red Terror

On the other hand, the Red Terror, “is always less bloody than white terror. The laboring masses exert it against minority classes within society. It only completes the action of the new economic and political factors. […] on the contrary, privileged minorities exert white terror against laboring masses, which they must bleed and decimate. In a single week, the people in Versailles generated more victims in Paris’s streets than what the Cheka killed throughout three years in all the areas of great Russia!”[xviii]

The White Terror

In the Russian Revolution, the first massacre of workers carried out by the bourgeoisie took place three days after seizing the power, when the troops resisting the revolution seized the Kremlin in Moscow. It continued in the territories occupied by the White army during the Civil War. Kornilov synthesized the situation as follows, “The greater the terror, the greater our victories”, and promised, “to light on fire half of the country and bleed three-fourths of all Russians”[xix] to reestablish capitalism. Denikin was known for mass executions and pillage. In the small city of Fastov, in the Kiev region, he killed over 1,500 Jews, mostly elder, women, and children.[xx] Winston Churchill personally warned that his anti-Semitism and the Pogroms limited the British support to his troops. However, his officials and him called Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George “Jews,” because of the little support they received from these imperialist potencies.

Admiral Kolchak, in Western Siberia, gave orders to shoot every Bolshevik found, as well as the collaborators, including amongst these many women and children. After the coup d’état against the government of the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks in this region, he arrested and exiled those who were not shot.

The Czechoslovakian Legion cut the throats of hundreds of Communists where it passed, in Siberia, the Volga, and Urals. The “democratic” government of the SRs and the Mensheviks in the region of the Volga massacred the Bolsheviks and the cities remained in state of siege.

Lenin says, “To the white terror of the enemies of the workers and peasants’ government, the workers and peasants will answer with massive red terror, against the bourgeoisie and its agents.”[xxi]

Controversies with the Pacifists

In Lessons of the Moscow Uprising, Lenin had harshly criticized Plekhanov, who made the balance that in the 1905 revolution there had been no significant strikes in Russia and the proletariat should not have taken up arms. Lenin called him a myopic and opportunistic, stating, “On the contrary, we should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively; we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine things to a peaceful strike and that a fearless and relentless armed fight was necessary. And now we must at last openly and publicly admit that political strikes are inadequate; we must carry on the widest agitation among the masses in favor of an armed uprising and make no attempt to obscure this question by talking about “preliminary stages,” or to befog it in any way. We would be deceiving both ourselves and the people if we concealed from the masses the necessity of a desperate, bloody war of extermination, as the immediate task of the coming revolutionary action.”[xxii]

After the 1917 revolution, the deepest theoretical controversy on this subject was by the Soviet revolutionaries against Karl Kautsky, called “renegade” by Lenin. They argued with his book The Dictatorship of the Proletariat[xxiii] because it rules out the violent means of struggle of the working class; it is apologetic of a pacific revolution opposed to a violent revolution, denying the very bourgeois process and ruling out the class character of bourgeois democracy.

In short, Lenin considers that, “Kautsky takes from Marxism what is acceptable to the liberals, to the bourgeoisie (the criticism of the Middle Ages, and the progressive historical role of capitalism in general and of capitalist democracy in particular), and discards, passes over in silence, glosses over all that in Marxism which is unacceptable to the bourgeoisie (the revolutionary violence of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie for the latter’s destruction). That is why Kautsky, by virtue of his objective position and irrespective of what his subjective convictions may be, inevitably proves to be a lackey of the bourgeoisie.

Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor. It is this truth, which forms a most essential part of Marx’s teaching, that Kautsky the “Marxist” has failed to understand. On this—the fundamental issue—Kautsky offers “delights” for the bourgeoisie instead of a scientific criticism of those conditions which make every bourgeois democracy a democracy for the rich.”[xxiv]

Being categorical, “The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws. […] the necessity of such violence is particularly called for, as Marx and Engels have repeatedly explained in detail (especially in The Civil War in France and in the preface to it), by the existence of militarism and a bureaucracy.

To sum up: Kautsky has in a most unparalleled manner distorted the concept dictatorship of the proletariat and has turned Marx into a common liberal. […] By so “interpreting” the concept “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” as to expunge the revolutionary violence of the oppressed class against its oppressors, Kautsky has beaten the world record in the liberal distortion of Marx. The renegade Bernstein has proved to be a more puppy compared with the renegade Kautsky.”[xxv]

Against Kautsky, Latsis stated, “sleeping between the February and October revolutions and waiting for others to do the necessary dirty work for the building of the new communist order, to be able to enter it with clean hands and clean starched collars.”[xxvi] Following Trotsky’s thought, “We will not enter the reign of socialism with white globes and polished floor.”[xxvii]

Trotsky also argues with Kautsky in 1920, in “Terrorism and Communism.” “In this sense, the Red Terror is not distinguishable from the armed insurrection, the direct continuation of which it represents. The State terror of a revolutionary class can be condemned “morally” only by a man who, as a principle, rejects (in words) every form of violence whatsoever – consequently, every war and every rising. […] But terror can be very efficient against a reactionary class which does not want to leave the scene of operations.”[xxviii]

The Goal is to Intimidate the Enemy

The Cheka published many counter-revolutionary executions in papers, as well as the imprisonment of great dukes, aristocrats, officials, journalists, financiers, industrials, and tradesmen. This was very important for publicity. The goal of Red Terror was not to exterminate the enemy but to intimidate it so that it stopped conspiring and, if possible, served the Workers’ State.

The SRs terrorists that shot Lenin on January 1920 were imprisoned, forgotten, and then became Bolsheviks.

In the course of events, the party tried to moderate terror. The Petrograd Krassnaia Gazzetta published, “The bourgeoisie has gotten a lesson […] Let our enemies leave us in peace to build the new life. If they do so, we will stop hunting them, leaving the hatred we have behind. […] the fate of the bourgeoisie is in their own hands.”[xxix]

“We may highlight some significant attenuating circumstances in favor of Lenin’s Central Committee in the eyes of sociology. The young republic lived exposed to deadly dangers. His indulgence with generals like Krasnov and Kornilov cost blood. The former regime had broadly used terror. The initiative of terror was taken by the white by November 1917, to massacre the workers of the Kremlin’s arsenal; by the Finnish reactionary in the first months of 1918, in greater scale, before “red terror” being proclaimed in Russia. The social wars of the XIX century, after the 1848 June days and the Paris Commune in 1871, were characterized by mass executions of defeated proletariats. The Russian revolutionaries knew what waited for the in case of defeat. Even so, the Cheka was benign in the beginning, until summer 1918. However, when the “red terror” was proclaimed, after the counter-revolutionary uprisings, after the murder of the Bolsheviks Volodarsky and Uritsky, after the two attempts against Lenin, the Cheka begun to shoot the hostages, suspects, and enemies, just to channel and control popular fury. Dzerzhinsky was very afraid of excesses in local Chekas; the statistics of the shot Chekists was enlightening.”[xxx]

In January 1921, with the end of the Civil War approaching, the decrease of the Cheka’s powers was decreed along with the abolition of death penalty.

Controversy with Victor Serge

Many revolutionaries questioned the existence of the Cheka, among them Kamenev within the Bolshevik party, and Maximo Gorki and Victor Serge outside of it. However, Lenin and Trotsky rejected his worries. Karl Radek was against the executions, “We must wound the bourgeoisie in its economic privileges.” Bukharin presented many doubts, but he reconsidered when the Anarchists bombarded a meeting in Moscow while he was speaking, killing 12 people and wounding 55, including Bukharin himself; just as Rakovsky was threatened with bombs during peace negotiation with Rada, Ukrainian right-wing.

For Victor Serge, “the most inexplicable mistake these socialists (the Bolsheviks) made, endowed with great historical knowledge, was creating The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, the Cheka, which judged the accused and simple suspects without listening to them or seeing them, thus without allowing them any possibility of defense […] Are socialists allowed to forget that the publicity of the processes is the only guaranty against arbitrariness and corruption not to setback beyond the expedite procedures of Fouquier-Tinville? The mistake and the responsibility are patent, the consequences have bee horrendous. The GPU, in other words, the Cheka broadened with a new name, ended by exterminating all the Bolshevik revolutionary generation […].”[xxxi]

The author continues, “the formulation of the Chekas was one of the most serious and inadmissible mistakes that the Bolshevik leaders committed in 1918, when the shortages, the blockages, and the interventions made them lose their heads. All the evidences show the revolutionary tribunals, working in the light of day and admitting the right to defense, would have reached the same efficiency with much less abuse and deprivation. It was necessary to revert the proceedings of the Inquisition.”[xxxii]

Lenin defended Félix Dzerzhinsky and Peters’s work, stating publicly that “What surprises me of the outcries on the Cheka’s mistakes is the incapability to have a broader view of the matter. We have people that seize specific mistakes committed by the Cheka, making noise on them… When I consider the Cheka’s activity and compare it to the attacks we suffer, I say this is cheap, an empty conversation worth nothing.”[xxxiii]

Trotsky was categorical, “Stupidity, stupidity – he repeated-. Do you believe it is possible to carry out a revolution without executions? Do you believe it is possible to end our enemies disarming them? What other repression measures will you resort to? Imprisonment? Do you believe they will be scared with this during the civil war, where the two adversaries equality trust in triumph?”[xxxiv]

At the same time, he explained in “Left-wing Childishness and Petty-Bourgeois Mentality”, “Let us also see the truth up front: we lack the relentless harshness necessary for the victory of socialism, and it is not due to lack of resolutions. We are resolute. However, we do not take out the gloves with sufficient speed and number for speculators, fraudsters, and capitalists to mock Soviet measures… our tribunals lack energy; instead of executing the transgressors, it condemns them to six months in prison. Both defects have the same social root: the influence of the petit-bourgeois element, its weakness. […] during a revolution, the maximum energy equals the maximum humanity.

Hesitations and weaknesses have a high cost. The more determination when carrying out a struggle, the shortest its duration, the greater the possibilities of victory and the less cost. ‘Before tyranny, mercy is barbarism’, said Robespierre in the Convention.”[xxxv]


Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.


[i] TROTSKY, León. 1924, The Problems of the Civil War. Available [in Spanish] at from the digital version “Les problèmes de la guerre civile,” – Marxist Internet Archives/français/Trotsky/Œuvres. First issue in Russian, Pravda N.º 202 – 6-09-1924. In French: Ed. de L’Humanité, September 1926. Not available in English due to copyright. Our translation.

[ii]  The murderer was the infiltrated Leonid Kannegisser, linked to the SR Savinkov.

[iii] The Law of 22 Prairial, also known as the Loi de la Grande Terreur, the law of the Great Terror, was enacted on 10 June 1794 (22 Prairial of the Year II under the French Revolutionary Calendar). By means of this law, the Committee of Public Safety simplified the judicial process to one of indictment and prosecution.

[iv] Sochineniya. In: E. H. Carr, História da Revolução Soviética, A Revolução Bolchevique [History of the Soviet Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 176. Not available in English. Our translation.

[v] Discours et Rapports de Robespierre. In: E. H. Carr, História da Revolução Soviética, A Revolução Bolchevique [History of the Soviet Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 176. Not available in English. Our translation.

[vi] The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. In: E. H. Carr, História da Revolução Soviética, A Revolução Bolchevique [History of the Soviet Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 176. Not available in English. Our translation.

[vii] See Marx. The Capital. Chapter XXIV – A Chamada Acumulação Original. Disponível [in Portuguese] at In English, the chapter changes. See The Capital, Part VII (Primitive accumulation),

[viii] Marx e Engels. Historisch-Kritsche Gesamtausgabe. In: E. H. Carr, História da Revolução Soviética, A Revolução Bolchevique [History of the Soviet Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 176. Not available in English. Our translation.

[ix] SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa [Year I of the Russian Revolution] – San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 396. Not available in English. Our translation.

[x] Spartacus Educational. Communist Secret Police: Cheka. Disponivel em:

[xi] Marx – The Civil War in France. 1891. Introduction by Frederick Engels – On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune [Historical Background & Overview of the Civil War]

[xii] Published in Marxism Alive #16, December 2007.

[xiii] Marx – The Civil War in France. 1891. Introduction by Frederick Engels – On the 20th Anniversary of the Paris Commune [Historical Background & Overview of the Civil War]

[xiv] SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa [Year I of the Russian Revolution] – San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 240. Not available in English. Our translation.

[xv] PAPPE, Ilan – The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine:

[xvi] In this case, Stalinist supporters, who used anti-democratic methods.

[xvii] Trotsky, Leon – The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning (December 1937)

[xviii] SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa [Year I of the Russian Revolution] – San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 396. Not available in English. Our translation.

[xix] SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa [Year I of the Russian Revolution] – San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 400. Not available in English. Our translation.

[xx] Fastov, History of Jewish communities in Ukraine. Available at:

[xxi] Lenin. Pyatsi Sozyv VTsIK (1919), in Izvestya. In: E. H. Carr, História da Revolução Soviética, A Revolução Bolchevique [History of the Soviet Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 193. Not available in English. Our translation.

[xxii] Lenin. Lessons of the Moscow Uprising:

[xxiii] Kautsky. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat:

[xxiv] The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Bourgeois And Proletarian Democracy:

[xxv] Ibidem.

[xxvi] Chrezvychainye Komissii po Borbe s Kontrrevolyutsiei (1921), in Izvestya. In: E. H. Carr, História da Revolução Soviética, A Revolução Bolchevique [History of the Soviet Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 195. Not available in English. Our translation.

[xxvii] E. H. Carr, História da Revolução Soviética, A Revolução Bolchevique [History of the Soviet Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution]. Oporto: Editora Afrontamento, vol. 1, p. 182. Not available in English. Our translation.Not available in English. Our translation.

[xxviii] TROTSKY, Leon. Terrorism and Communism – Chapter 4: Terrorism.

[xxix] SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa [Year I of the Russian Revolution] – San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 371. Not available in English. Our translation.

[xxx] SERGE, Victor. Retrato de Stalin. [Stalin’s Portrait]. Quoted in Treinta años después de la revolución rusa [Thirty years after the Russian Revolution], at Not available in English. Our translation.

[xxxi] Ibidem.

[xxxii] SERGE, Victor. Memórias de um Revolucionário. [Memories of a Revolutionary]. Available in Spanish a Not available in English. Our transation.

[xxxiii] Spartacus Educational. Communist Secret Police: Cheka. Disponível em:

[xxxiv] TROTSKY, Leon. Acerca de Lenin. [On Lenin.] In: SERGE, Victor. O Ano I da Revolução Russa [Year I of the Russian Revolution] – San Pablo: Editora Boitempo, p. 398. Not available in English. Our translation.

[xxxv] SERGE, Victor. Teoría marxista del terror blanco y rojo. [Marxist Theory of Red and White Terror.] Available in Spanish at: Not available in English. Our translation.