Democracy is a central motif of our age. The anti-war movement has pressed home our lack of it, imperialists try to use it as a rallying cry to impose their military dominance around the world, and many around the globe still struggle for the basic right to choose their government in open elections.
It is a theme very much at the centre of this short book by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. The book was written and published during the harsh years of civil war that followed the 1917 October Revolution.
It is a highly charged reply to a book of the same title written by German socialist Karl Kautsky. Kautsky had attacked the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution, arguing that they had taken power too early, that the Red terror used in the civil war compromised socialist commitment to the "sanctity of human life" and that following the channels of parliamentary democracy was the best way to achieve socialism.
Trotsky's reply is uncompromising and full of delightful sharp polemic against Kautsky's illusions in capitalist democracy. Trotsky points to the lack of meaningful democracy in any society in which real power remains in the hands of the capitalist class. In a passage that holds great relevance today, Trotsky writes, "The capitalist bourgeois calculates: While I have in my hands lands, factories, workshops, banks; while I possess newspapers, universities, schools; while I retain control of the army: the apparatus of democracy, however you reconstruct it, will remain obedient to my will."
Trotsky also points to the difference between parliamentary democracies, in which ordinary people are encouraged into a passive role as occasional voters, and the soviets - the workers' councils created by the revolution - in which active creative participation is at the heart of organisation and decision making.
The title of this book is misleading for new readers - the "terrorism" it refers to is not the individual terrorism or terror attacks of small groups that the word conjures up today (though the prolific Trotsky wrote elsewhere about the problems of individual terrorism). It refers to state terror - which the Bolsheviks were using to wage civil war against opponents of the revolution both inside and outside Russia.
Trotsky attacks Kautsky's abstract moral notions of the "sanctity of human life" and points out that the rule of one class over another is always based on repression. Writing at the same time as he built and led the Red Army to defend the revolution, Trotsky explains why the use of force is necessary for the very survival of the revolution - faced with over a dozen invading armies and internal opposition from the old ruling class.
He argues that to refuse to ever use force is to refuse revolution.
The publishers have done a great job putting this book together, including a useful glossary and a timeline that make the book more accessible to a wider audience.
Trotsky's work is introduced by Slavoj Žižek. As I hurtled through Žižek's sometimes bewildering tour of history, philosophy and psychoanalysis, I found myself at times wishing the "Elvis of cultural theory", as Žižek is described by the publishers, had the same gift of focus as Trotsky. But in the midst of it all, Žižek offers a very insightful and spirited defence of Trotsky and Lenin against claims that their ideas or their deeds led to the horrors of Stalin.