It’s under-appreciated how state terror envelops society as both a bottom-up organic process as well as being a top-down, state-induced state of chaos. You can especially get this sense by reading Solzhenitsyn.
If you impose terror too quickly, you run the risk of having people escape with their resources, and can possibly interrupt economic activity that you could otherwise collect rents on. Revolutionary governments tend to be money-starved governments, and the ones that survive for longer tend to be better at maintaining a sense of normalcy within the productive class for as long as possible.
Everything is simplified during a real war from which no one can escape, so we won’t consider that instance in this case.
The most basic human instrument of terror is the thug. The thug rarely works, unless it’s as a pimp, a smuggler, or a general-purpose wiseguy. Turned into a political instrument, the thug has an explicit party membership. He may collect a stipend and hold a title, which he can augment with his sidelines and his position of legal authority. Part of what makes the thug useful is that he is disposable if he causes problems.
Thugs can have official status given or retracted as it suits the needs of the party in a particular region. To the extent that the thugs are not officially part of the party, they can be used as pressure to push productive people into joining the party for protection from the chaos that always surrounds the thug’s activities.
A second critical character to the care and feeding of the terror is the informant. Informants are often women or children, but they can be men as well. Informants are usually motivated by either envy or spite, but they may also turn in their friends for counter-revolutionary activity because they are themselves under pressure. Professional informants may also be used, but people can train themselves to spot them, whereas everyone has neighbors, and in cities, it’s not possible to restrict who those neighbors are.
Why do they do what they do? Because thought criminals are legitimately dangerous to the people around them. They instinctively perceive them as threatening, because tolerating their presence is dangerous. And most people have the courage of a mouse.
Finally, there’s the commissar, who will often start as a pure believer in the revolution. The commissar provides the verve, the faith, that the other instruments of terror lack. A thug will torture someone for pleasure, but a commissar will do it because he believes that it’s just.
The thug is useful at all stages of the terror. In the beginning, he is the most deniable tool. Crime can be portrayed as almost a force of nature. If the judge is sympathetic, he may only put lenient sentences on the thug for his actions, if he receives any sentence at all.
As the terror escalates, the thug gains opportunities to wrap himself in the righteous cause. The more that he is able to wrap himself in the colors of the revolution, the more he is able to indulge his sadism and greed with impunity.
Whereas the party may start out condemning the thug’s crimes as crimes, as the revolution accelerates, his crimes shift from regrettable, to understandable, to necessary actions.
A commissar may start out as a thug — even many of the bright names in the Soviet leadership were bank robbers — but he often possesses intelligence, charisma, and an unstoppable work ethic. In ordinary times, a commissar would go from being a bright, passionate student into becoming a dull if scrupulous clerk. Political repression can help him preserve his romantic sense of himself for much longer than would be possible otherwise. The badge to him means everything. When he kills someone, even a woman, he rarely feels regret or pity, even for a moment. The notion of guilt is foreign to his temperament.
While a priest might doubt himself, a commissar does not, at least until the revolution burns out.
Informants are typically ordinary people, who in more moral times would simply be an annoying co-worker or a nosy aunt. The revolution gives them a sense of new-found purpose. Whereas in better times, their vigilance might be put to use reporting a dangerous looking vagrant lurking near a park, during the revolution, they perk up their ears for politically incorrect jokes and other indications of reactionary tendencies.
The universal moral corrosion common to totalitarian regimes is what dissidents and historians usually remark on. It becomes almost as if everyone who stays within the totalitarian society is incapable of being good. There may be occasional good acts performed by bad people under totalitarianism, but part of what makes it so sinister is that the idea of goodness dies within the common people as well as the elites, except for perhaps within some of the surviving elderly people.
Denied the outward performance of goodness, the inner light tends to die as well. That is what makes it so intolerable.
In America, we are still at a relatively early time in the development of the terror, in part because it’s mostly only been possible to move slowly. When a thug performs a crime, the commoners see a criminal. But the revolutionaries and the temporary elites who know that they must appease them see a soldier, or a martyr. The two groups can see the same images, know the same facts, and yet hold a different narrative about the meaning of those images and facts within their minds.
Once the terror begins, it must intensify through a ratcheting process, as elites rely more heavily on the revolution to retain access to resources and control, and the revolution needs to accelerate to avoid decaying into nothing. When the current elites cease to be useful, the revolution eats them, and takes their place in the shell where government was previously.
As the revolution fails to produce the perfection of the idea of the revolution, it must intensify every trend, must make greater use of its instruments, and destroy not just all good things, but attack the idea of goodness itself in the common mind. Thugs being quite literal, they do this by battering the brains of good people until blood and organs stain the walls and ruin the carpets. Hammers, knives, spikes, household objects, guns, machetes, gasoline — complicated tools are not necessary for this sort of mass moral restructuring.
Goodness being redefined as evil, the commissars seek out everyone who is good, to torture them until they stop being good, or cease being. With competing sources of Goodness gone, the revolution looks taller by comparison relative to the crowd of nihilists that it leaves behind.