Issue 284 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

The politics of terror


A demonstration against the killing of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades, joined by many trade unionists in 1978
A demonstration against the killing of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades, joined by many trade unionists in 1978

The violence of the system breeds terrorism, argues John Molyneux, but revolutionaries fight for a very different form of struggle.

The right wing have always tried to associate revolution with terrorist acts of the kind that took place in Madrid on 11 March. The fact is, however, that all genuine socialists have always opposed the use of such methods.

We want a society which is non-violent, where the oppression and discrimination that we suffer today is a thing of the past. However, in the struggle for this new society Marxists do not reject all violence. The bourgeois politicians who make such claims--while supporting wars, nuclear weapons, armies, prisons, etc--are simply hypocrites, and Marxists recognise that in certain circumstances, such as wars of national liberation and mass revolutionary struggle, violence may be unavoidable. But terrorism, as in planting bombs on government or civilian targets, or hijacking planes, or assassinations by small groups acting independently of class struggle, has always been deemed unacceptable.

This is because terrorism runs counter to the most basic principles of Marxism. Marx showed that the root cause of exploitation, oppression, tyranny and war was not bad individual rulers or bad governments but the division of society into classes, and the ownership and control of production by a minority class that live off the labour of the majority. The overthrow of a ruling class and the economic system on which it rests cannot be achieved by killing or frightening even large numbers of individuals, but only by the struggle of a new class which is the bearer of a new economic system.

Applied to modern capitalist society, this means that the only force capable of defeating the capitalist class is the organised struggle of the mass of the working class. In the words of Marx, 'The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.' This emphasis on the self emancipation of the working class is crucial not only for the overthrow of capitalism but also for the achievement of the aim, the establishment of socialism. Revolutions from above, even by forces claiming to act on behalf of the working class, result only in the replacement of one set of exploiters and oppressors by another (however good the intentions of the revolutionaries). This has been proved time and again in history, but above all by the Stalinist military seizures of power in Eastern Europe, China, etc, which simply replaced private capitalism by state capitalism.

The methods of struggle used by socialists--from issuing leaflets, collecting petitions, organising trade unions and parties through to mass demonstrations, election campaigns and mass strikes--are all steps towards raising the consciousness, confidence and organisation of workers to act on their own behalf.

Terrorist methods contradict this whole perspective. Frequently, as in Madrid, they are aimed at completely the wrong targets, striking not at rulers or oppressors but at ordinary working people. This repeats the 'mistake'--or should it be 'crime'--so often perpetrated by the right, of collective national or racial guilt, ie holding everyone of a particular group responsible for the actions of the rulers of that group. Often this has the effect of intensifying racial, national or sectarian divisions which weaken the struggle of the working class and which it should be the project of the left to overcome. Even where targets are more judiciously selected, eg individual tyrants, direct and senior agents of the oppressor state, there is still a very high risk of error resulting in unintended innocent victims, with all the same political consequences.

Kidnapping and killing

Another common result of terrorism is that it strengthens and legitimises the repressive apparatus of the very state it is supposed to undermine. The regime on the receiving end responds with attacks on civil liberties, arbitrary round-ups of 'suspects', etc. It cannot be said that this always happens. Recent events in Spain--due to the splendid response of the Spanish people--are a wonderful exception. But it is the most likely outcome. Similarly, terrorist acts can have the perverse effect of turning a roundly despised politician or businessman into some kind of martyr or national hero, as happened with the kidnapping and killing of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades in 1978.

But even in the best possible case--where the target is a generally acknowledged tyrant and the deed is meticulously executed with no innocent casualties--the terrorist operation remains at odds with the Marxist perspective. As Leon Trotsky put it, 'If it is enough to arm oneself with a pistol in order to achieve one's goal, why the efforts of the class struggle?... If it makes sense to terrify highly placed personages with the roar of explosions, where is the need for a party? Why meetings, mass agitation and elections?...

'In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their own powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who someday will come and accomplish his mission.'

Quoting Trotsky here is appropriate for two reasons. First, because Trotsky wrote a series of articles on terrorism which eloquently summarise the Marxist case, and these have been collected in an accessible pamphlet, Marxism and Terrorism. Second, because the articles grow out of the experience of terrorism in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th century. Conducted by the Narodniks or Populists, and particularly by the organisation Narodnaya Volya (The People's Will), this was one of the great terrorist campaigns in history, and perhaps the first time terrorism was intellectually formulated as a systematic political strategy. The Narodniks were intellectuals who looked to Russia's vast and deeply oppressed peasantry, and whose aim was to overthrow Tsarism by systematic attacks on the Tsar and his ministers. The Russian Marxist movement under the leadership of Georgii Plekhanov emerged in opposition to Populism, and therefore conducted an intense debate on terrorism in the course of which the Marxist position was definitively established.

Jan-Carl Raspe, a member of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group
Jan-Carl Raspe, a member of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group

Terrorism often strengthens the repressive apparatus of the state

The terrorist threat

The Russian Marxists made a distinction between their attitude to terrorism and their attitude to the terrorists. The former they rejected uncompromisingly, while the latter had all their sympathy, and their personal courage was always acknowledged.

Ruling class politicians and their media habitually denounce terrorists as 'cowards', 'evil' and 'subhuman'. The Russian Marxists had no truck with such notions, and never contemplated moderating their own opposition to Tsarism on account of 'the terrorist threat', still less joining forces with the regime against the terrorists. Their criticism of terrorism was always in terms of its ineffective and counterproductive nature in relation to the real revolutionary struggle. And of course they were vindicated by history. It was no terrorist bomb but the mass action of the working class that eventually toppled both Tsarism and the Russian bourgeoisie. The Marxist response to terrorism formulated at the turn of the century has stood the test of time and has served as a guide to action in recent decades. These decades, however, have offered a rich and varied crop of terrorist campaigns on which certain observations can be made.

In the first place it is clear that there is a substantial strand of right wing and fascist terrorism. Examples include the Orange paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the Bologna bombing in Italy, Oklahoma in the US, David Copeland of Soho nailbomb infamy, and Combat 18. Obviously these present no theoretical problems for the left since we are opposed to everything about them. Other forms of terrorism divide broadly into two camps. On the one hand, mainly in the 1970s, there were various offshoots from the far left and the student revolt--the Weathermen in the US, the Angry Brigade in Britain, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, and so on. Typically these groups represented a frustrated, impatient reaction to the faltering of the mass movements from which they sprung. With the partial exception of the Red Brigades, they had no mass base and little capacity to inflict serious damage on the ruling class. Their main effect was to disorganise and disorient the left. It is clear that the job of revolutionary socialists is to do everything possible to discourage the development of such moods, but by argument and by ensuring the positive momentum of the mass struggle.

Much more importantly, there have been various nationalist terrorist formations attempting to represent oppressed nationalities--the IRA, Eta, the different Palestinian organisations, etc. These organisations usually do have a significant, if largely passive, social base, though its size can vary from being a small minority to a substantial majority of their respective communities and, crucially, they usually have a base in a section of the national bourgeoisie. Essentially they are political formations who would like to be able to wage conventional war (or at least guerrilla war), but who are prevented from doing so by the overwhelming superiority of the oppressor's military forces. Their class basis and their political outlook prevent them from looking to the working class as an alternative. Consequently they resort to terrorism.

Sometimes, and the Palestinian intifada is the best example of this, terrorist tactics do more or less merge with the mass resistances of the people, and this certainly affects or should affect the language and tone of our critique. We on the left should not, I suggest, 'condemn' Palestinian suicide bombers or attacks by the Iraqi resistance. Nevertheless the general force of the Marxist critique continues to apply. Therefore, Marxists within the context of uncompromising opposition to our 'own' imperialist bourgeoisies must continue to make the case that ultimately the defeat of imperialism and the overthrow of capitalism are tasks that are bound together, and that the only force that can complete these tasks is the international working class.

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