The Commissar Armed
“I think it was Trotsky who used a very plain but very telling metaphor,” the historian Isaac Deutscher told graduate students in a seminar on bureaucracy at the London School of Economics in 1960. “The policeman can use his baton either for regulating traffic or for dispersing a demonstration of strikers or unemployed. In this one sentence is summed up the classical distinction between administration of things and administration of men.” Deutscher repeated the argument, offered by Engels and developed by Lenin and Bukharin, that once the state ceased to function as an instrument of class domination, it could turn its attentions to “objective social and productive process.” And like Engels, Lenin, and Bukharin, he emphasized the difference between this idea and anarchism: “We are not concerned with the elimination of all administrative functions—this would be absurd in an industrially developing society—but we are concerned with reducing the policeman's baton to its proper role, that of disentangling traffic jams.” Deutscher is right to say that this metaphor was “telling.” It was probably more telling than he intended it to be. Even in its most innocuous form—directing traffic—the “administration of things” functioned through the implicit threat of violence: the baton remained at the ready. Far from dehumanizing, the formula was perversely rehumanizing. It returned the policeman to power.