Marxism versus terrorism

Shaun Harkin explains why Marxists believe that acts of violence committed with the aim of advancing the struggle actually accomplish the opposite.

The Russian revolutionary Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917 (Albert Rhys Williams)The Russian revolutionary Lenin speaks to a mass demonstration in 1917 (Albert Rhys Williams)

IN AN article titled "Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism," the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued:

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

The anarchist prophets of the "propaganda of the deed" can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the masses. Theoretical considerations and political experience prove otherwise. The more "effective" the terrorist acts, the greater their impact, the more they reduce the interest of the masses in self-organization and self-education.

But the smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen. And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.

In their youth, both Trotsky and Lenin were highly influenced by the Russian Narodik or Populist movement that Trotsky criticized in the passage above. As a teenager, Trotsky's first encounter with radical ideas was with a loosely organized Narodnik discussion group. He challenged a friend's adherence to Marxism by mocking it as a "doctrine for shopkeepers and merchants."

Lenin's older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, was executed in May 1887 for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. In his book What Is to Be Done? Lenin wrote that many Russian socialists had:

begun their revolutionary thinking as adherents of Narodnaya Volya (People's Will). Nearly all had, in their early youth, enthusiastically worshipped the terrorist heroes. It required a struggle to abandon the captivating impressions of those heroic traditions, and the struggle was accompanied by the breaking off of personal relations with people who were determined to remain loyal to the Narodnaya Volya.

Narodism looked to Russia's massive peasantry as the decisive revolutionary force in the overthrow of the brutally oppressive system of Tsarism. In the 1870s, thousands of middle-class Russian youth went to the countryside to educate and win over the peasantry to the goal of a mass uprising. When the peasants didn't respond to the revolutionary message as eagerly as expected, the movement swung towards plots against leading figures of the Tsarist regime, in the hopes that this would spark rebellion.

In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was successfully assassinated. However, instead of a nationwide peasant revolt, the deed produced a wave of repression subduing the revolutionary movement for years.

By the end of 19th century, capitalism had sunk roots in the cities of Russia, and a powerful working class movement, though still a minority of the population, began to emerge. With the appearance of several strike waves, a new generation of revolutionaries rejected the prevailing strategy of individual terrorism and looked to workers as the potential leaders of a society-wide revolt against Tsarism--and, ultimately, the overthrow of capitalism. This is how the revolutionary movement in Russia came to reject the "propaganda of the deed" and terrorism in favor of the Communist Manifesto.

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CENTRAL TO Marxism is the argument that the collective struggle of the working class is the only means by which all of humanity can be liberated. Karl Marx put it like this: "The emancipation of the working class must be act of the working class itself."

The confidence that Marxists have in the working class as the agent of revolutionary change is based on workers' strategic position in the process of production: workers' collective labor creates the wealth that the capitalist system depends on. The strategies and tactics of Marxists flow from this central idea.

How does the working class become revolutionary? The development of revolutionary consciousness is a process shaped by the experience of exploitation and oppression, but also, decisively, participation in struggle. If our aim requires the mass participation of working people, then revolutionaries must temper their urgency with patience. Strategy and tactics must be informed by an assessment of what can be achieved at any given time--and an understanding that the goal of the struggle must be to broaden the radicalization and mobilization.

In this sense, timing matters greatly. No one strategy should be fetishized as the answer for all occasions. Struggles require different strategies at different times.

For example, a mass movement of the working class with the power to overturn the status quo must be prepared to deal with the violence of the state machine. And a victorious revolution will need to defend itself against counter-revolution. But that is a stark contrast to radicals who turn to violence out of a frustration at the apparent "apathy" of the masses and the slow pace of struggle.

The belief in the "propaganda of the deed" that was characteristic of Narodism in Russia and that continues among parts of the left today stems from a combination of flawed ideas: 1) the ruling class and its state apparatus can be terrorized into submission or forced to grant reforms through the bold actions of a small minority; 2) violence is necessary to "wake up" the sleepwalking masses and stimulate their participation in struggle; 3) extreme actions and the state repression they provoke can shock those not engaged in struggle to recognize the need for change and become aware of the path to their own liberation; and 4) provoking a repressive reaction from the state will expose its violent character to the masses, who will then understand the need to abolish it.

Whatever the exact rationale for "escalating" the struggle through the use of violence, the underlying framework is the same: a militant minority initiates and accomplishes revolutionary change, and the masses passively respond. Individuals or small clandestine networks substitute themselves for mass activity.

This radical core can view itself as an enlightened leadership or heroic martyrs or both. Its participants may be openly contemptuous of the sheep-like "masses" or simply impatient for revolutionary upheaval--either way, the approach is fundamentally elitist because it rejects mass participation and democracy.

Those who have determined that violence is necessary to radicalize the struggle must organize on a clandestine basis, and conspiratorial struggle necessarily rejects democracy. With this approach, a minority can utilize violence without democratic support or even after its strategy and tactics have been democratically rejected. The supposed militants can justify their deeds on the basis that they are "the only ones prepared to act."

This strategy is not only elitist, but it has proved to be counterproductive--over and over again through history. The use of violence by a conspiratorial few opens the door wide to agent provocateurs, and it is routinely used to legitimize and justify sweeping state repression applied far beyond the small numbers who participated in the plot. And more broadly, the "bold actions" of a minority undermine the development of working class consciousness and confidence, created through the experience of struggle and the process of collective decision-making.

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HISTORY HAS borne out these criticisms of "propaganda of the deed" and terrorism as a substitute for mass working class organizing and action.

For example, Mike Davis, in Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, describes the consequences of a campaign of terrorism in the U.S. in the 1920s.

Davis describes how the Italian anarchist Mario Buda, following the arrest of his comrades Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti on false charges in Massachusetts, parked his horse-drawn wagon packed with high explosives and iron slugs on Wall Street in September 1920.

When the bomb went off, Davis writes, "[w]indows exploded in the faces of office workers, pedestrians were mowed down by metal shrapnel or scythed by shards of glass, building awnings and parked cars caught fire, and a suffocating cloud of smoke and debris enshrouded Wall Street. Skyscrapers quickly emptied. Panicked crowds fled past crumbled bodies on the sidewalks, some of them writhing in agony." Forty people were killed and over 200 injured.

While Buda quietly escaped to Italy, the attack was the pretext for declaring a national emergency. According to Davis, "Anarchists, the IWW, and the new-fangled Bolsheviki all automatically became suspect, and the New York Times soon screamed 'Red Plot Seen in Blast.'"

The Wall Street bombing was part of a wave of organized attacks initiated by a secretive organization with no more than 50 or 60 members. But the attacks were used as part of the justification for rounding up thousands of people, raiding the offices of groups and individual's homes, and, the deportation of large numbers of "radical" immigrants. The campaign of political violence by a small number of conspirators was in contrast to the mass working-class struggles of the postwar years, including the 1919 Seattle General Strike.

During the radicalization of the late 1960s and early 1970s, one strand of the left embraced terrorist methods--most famously the Weather Underground Organization, a product of the factional demise of Students for a Democratic Society.

In October 1969, the Weather Underground organized for so-called "Days of Rage" in Chicago. Weather members planned "direct actions"--chiefly, attacking police, cars and businesses--with the slogan to "Bring the war home."

Weather leaders hoped to attract thousands to their ranks. The actual turnout was dismal, with several hundred participating. Despite the small numbers, the Days of Rage received hysterical coverage from the national media, granting a kind of movement "stardom" to some of the group's spokespeople.

But others on the left rightly feared the Days of Rage would invite an escalation of state repression. Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panther Party in Chicago, described the action as "anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic, chauvinistic...[I]ts leaders take people into situations where the people can be massacred, and they call that revolution. It's nothing but child's play; it's folly."

However, the Weather Underground leadership viewed the fiasco as a success because it "hardened" members for the next stage of struggle. As veteran leftist Max Elbaum wrote in Revolution in the Air:

The Weathermen's more-revolutionary-than-thou denunciations of everyone else on the left and their position that all-white-people-except-us-are-backward aroused tremendous hostility in many quarters. Talking glibly about (though never actually implementing) tactics such as assassinating police officers in minority communities in order to bring down repression and thus radicalize more people of color--an outright racist position, despite its ultra-revolutionary guise--didn't win many friends among radicals of any color either.

A couple months after the Days of Rage, the Weather Underground--which never had more than 300 members--decided to go "underground" and launch an "armed struggle" against the U.S. government. This consisted of carrying out bombings of government buildings and banks over the following few years.

There is no doubting the sincere commitment of Weather Underground members, who were radicalized by the Black struggle in the U.S. and the government's barbarism in Vietnam. But their disastrous and completely ineffectual strategies and tactics flowed from elitist ideas about the U.S. working class.

Weather members believed U.S. workers, specifically white workers, were reactionary, incapable of radicalization and militant action. White workers were viewed as part of the problem.

When a rank-and-file rebellion, involving tens of thousands of white workers alongside Black workers and migrant Mexican farmworkers, took shape across the U.S. in the early 1970s--inspired by the rise of other social movements of the era--this section of revolutionaries typified by the Weather Underground found themselves adrift. Impatience led to isolation, irrelevance and demoralization.

Internationally, other radicals formed similar groups, such as the Angry Brigade in Britain, the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, and followed the same course with the same dire results. By contrast, revolutionary socialists in the U.S. and elsewhere--with an understanding of the centrality of the working class and how consciousness could transform--were able to relate to mass workers' fights and sometimes play a critical role in the struggles.

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IN NORTHERN Ireland, the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) resistance to the British occupation offers another telling example. The IRA should be distinguished from tiny terrorist groups like the Weather Underground and Red Brigades because of its mass base in the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, its activities provide an illustration of how particular tactics can undercut popular support and legitimize repression.

In early 1972, the IRA's ranks grew tremendously in response to "Bloody Sunday"--the murder of civil rights marchers in Derry by British Army paratroopers. Months later, on what became known as "Bloody Friday," the IRA detonated 22 car bombs during an 80-minute period in Belfast killing seven civilians and two British soldiers, and seriously injuring more than 130 people, both Protestant and Catholic.

The damage was spectacular, but as Mike Davis wrote:

What was less well understood outside of Ireland, however, was the enormity of the wound that the IRA's car bombs had inflicted on the Republican movement itself. Bloody Friday destroyed much of the IRA's heroic-underdog popular image, produced deep revulsion amongst ordinary Catholics, and gave the British government an unexpected reprieve from the worldwide condemnation it had earned for the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry and the policy of internment without trial. Moreover, it gave the British Army the perfect pretext to launch the massive Operation Motorman: 13,000 troops led by Centurion tanks entered the "no-go" areas of Derry and Belfast, smashed the barricades and reclaimed the streets from the Republican movement.

The IRA won deep support within the Catholic working class because of its resistance to the hated Protestant-dominated "Orange state," backed by the violence of occupying British soldiers. Many of the IRA's most dedicated working class volunteers and supporters were sympathetic to socialism or embraced some version of it. However, because of the Republican focus solely on national liberation, the leadership of the IRA prioritized tactics that made it much more difficult to win support from working-class Protestants in Northern Ireland, workers in the Republican of Ireland and the working class in England.

For some sections of the IRA, this didn't matter; working-class unity was never a desired goal. But even some of those who considered themselves socialists believed Protestant workers would never unite with Catholic workers around class demands until after the British Army was driven out and Ireland was unified.

Without a doubt, winning Protestant workers away from Loyalism was a tremendously difficult task, but militarization of the Northern Ireland struggle benefited Loyalist bosses by cementing sectarian divisions within the working class. The IRA's single-minded focus on armed struggle sidelined demands and strategies geared towards fighting for working class unity.

The terrain of military struggle was also one that the much more powerful British Army could dominate and manipulate, no matter how unrelenting and heroic the resistance to their presence.

The Marxist case against propaganda of the deed and terrorism is based not on any moral evaluation of these strategies, but on their effectiveness in uprooting a repugnant social order. Socialists have a positive vision to offer of the importance of collective working class action. The working class collectively produces all wealth, and so it has the potential of collectively paralyzing production, collectively taking control of society and collectively beginning the construction of a new one.

But none of this is possible without working class unity in the struggle against exploitation and all forms of oppression, and mass democracy in determining the shape of struggle. Because terrorism, by necessity, requires a highly conspiratorial minority to carry out its actions, it is directly antagonistic to the development of a mass working class movement for self-emancipation.