from the collection, What do we mean by ...?, Education for Socialists No.6, March 1987.
Published by the Socialist Workers Party (Britain).
First published in Socialist Worker Review.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
After the IRA bombing of Harrods Store in London, I was approached by a young Labour Party supporter with the question: “What does the SWP say about the IRA now?” His assumption was that there must be some change in the basic position we held during the hunger strike of Republican political prisoners in 1980-1 now that the Provisionals had embarked on a new bombing campaign. This despite the fact that many of the prisoners in the H-Blocks there precisely for planting bombs and other “terrorist” activities.
But my questioner’s attitude was quite understandable, even if not strictly logical. In our society reactions to terrorism vary enormously according to proximity in time and place. If Robert Mugabe visited Britain he would be received at Buckingham Palace. Anyone arguing that he was a criminal and attempting a citizen’s arrest would themselves be locked up. But let Ken Llvingstone say the IRA are not criminals, and he is pilloried in the press as “the most odious man in Britain” (The Sun).
In other words, at a distance, it is generally possible to view terrorism in some historical and political perspective, but the nearer to home it gets, the more it becomes an issue on which rational thought is engulfed by emotional blackmail. Overwhelmingly the emotional blackmail is employed by the ruling class through the press and TV to create an atmosphere in which the terrorists are viewed as inhuman monsters, the cause they fight for is damned, and the usually all-too-real oppression they suffer is obscured.
In opposition to this there arises, first and foremost inside the terrorist movement itself but then spreading to many of its supporters and sympathisers, a romantic hero-worship of the terrorist as the true revolutionary – a standpoint from which any criticism of terrorist strategy and tactics seems a cowardly betrayal.
This “romance of terror” is infinitely preferable to the hysterical baying of the professional hypocrites of the media. But it is still far from a sober analysis of the role of terrorism in the class struggle. And that is what we need.
One place where we can find such an analysis is in Trotsky’s articles on terrorism. Written over a period of thirty years and collected together in the pamphlet Against Individual Terrorism they are the best source in all Marxist literature on the question. Trotsky’s credentials for writing about terrorism were, of course, excellent. The organiser of the October revolution and the builder of the Red Army was unlikely to be accused of pacifism or liberal prejudice. Moreover, for Trotsky it was no abstract or academic issue. As he himself put it:
For us, the Russian revolutionists, the problem of terror was a life and death matter in the political as well as the personal meaning of the term. For us a terrorist was not a character from a novel, but a living and familiar being. In exile we lived for years side by side with the terrorists of the older generation. In prison and police custody we met with terrorists of our own age. We tapped messages back in the Peter and Paul fortress with terrorists condemned to death. How many nights, how many days, were spent in passionate discussion! How many times did we break personal relationships on this most burning of all questions!
At the same time Trotsky is not limited by the “Russian” experience. He approaches terrorism as an international social and political phenomenon to be assessed rationally on its merits. His writings lift us from under the emotive rubble onto clear ground of scientific Marxist analysis.
Trotsky begins and ends by dissociating himself from the “bought-and-paid-for moralists” who “make solemn declarations about the ‘absolute value of human life’,” and by exposing the hypocrisy of “the bourgeois politicians” who “pour out their floods of moral indignation when their entire state apparatus with its laws, police and army is nothing but an apparatus for capitalist terror”. These words were written in 1911, but they ring just as true today when we have reached the ultimate absurdity of advocates of Cruise missiles and producers of the neutron bomb condemning the violence of terrorist groups.
But Trotsky does not simply establish this clear line of demarcation between himself and the reactionary critics of terror, stressing his emotional sympathy with the “self-sacrificing avengers” as opposed to the tyrants and oppressors. He goes on to demolish the case of terrorism brick by brick until not a stone is left standing. It is worth following the argument in detail.
He begins by examining the class character of the terrorist act and comparing it with the fundamental weapon of the working class, the strike, “the method of struggle that flows directly from the productive role of the proletariat in modern society”:
Only the workers can conduct a strike. Artisans ruined by the factory, peasants whose water the factory is poisoning, or lumpen proletarians in search of plunder, can smash machines. set fire to a factory, or murder its owner. In order to murder a prominent official you need not have the masses behind you. The recipe for explosives is accessible to all, and a Browning can be obtained anywhere.
In the first case there is a social struggle, whose methods and means flow necessarily from the nature of the prevailing social order; in the second a purely mechanical reaction identical everywhere.
Trotsky goes on to argue the complete ineffectiveness of terrorism as a means of destroying, not individual oppressors, but the oppressor class and the oppressor system: “Whether a terrorist attempt, even a ‘successful’ one, throws the ruling class into confusion depends on the concrete political circumstances. In any case the confusion can only be short-lived: the capitalist state does not base itself on government ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves always find new people, the mechanism remains intact and continues to function.”
But for Trotsky terrorism is not merely ineffective; it is also positively harmful. It gives the enemy an ideological field day, it enables police representation to grow more savage and brazen, and it demonstrates that “the state is much richer in the means of physical destruction and mechanical repression than the terrorist groups.” Above all, it is an extreme example of “substitutionism”, of individuals or movements trying to substitute themselves for the actions of the mass of workers:
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 a thimbleful of gunpowder and a little chunk of lead is enough to shoot the enemy through the neck, what need is there for a class organisation? 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 someday will come and accomplish his mission.
This is the heart of the matter, the basis of the Marxist criticism of the terrorist as “a liberal with a bomb”. Trotsky demonstrates the underlying affinity between terrorism and petty bourgeois nationalism, between terrorism and its apparent opposite, reformism: “Whoever stalks a ministerial portfolio, as well as those who, clasping an infernal machine beneath a cloak, stalk the minister himself, must equally overestimate the minister – his personality and his post.”
Sometimes where terrorist organisations arise alongside Marxist ones and have to meet Marxist criticisms, there is proposed a compromise formula: “terror not instead of mass struggle, but alongside it”. When terrorist moods begin to infect a Marxist movement itself, it is usually this formula that is adopted. Trotsky, however, will have none of it.
But this does not change matters. By its very essence terrorist work demands such concentrated energy for “the great moment”, such an overestimation of the significance of individual heroism, and finally such “hermetic” conspiracy, that – if not logically then psychologically – it totally excludes agitational and organisational work among the masses ... The revolvers of individual heroes instead of the people’s cudgels and pitchforks; bombs instead of barricades-that is the real formula of terrorism. And no matter what sort of subordinate role terror is relegated to (in theory) it always occupies a special place of honour in fact.
This last remark, made by Trotsky about the Russian Social Revolutionaries at the beginning of the century, is confirmed once again in the relationship between the military and political wings of the contemporary Irish Republican movement.
It is always dangerous to take the writings of Marxist classics on tactical-questions and apply them mechanically to their historical context, but here we have a case of what might be called “principle in the field of tactics”. In my view practically every word Trotsky wrote on this subject still stands today. They apply to the IRA, but they apply equally to the Mujahadin in Iran, who elected to resist Khomeini’s tyranny with bombs rather than mass actions.
Let’s hope we don’t soon have to say that Trotsky’s comments apply also to a section of the left in Britain. This is by no means impossible, for the continuation of Thatcherite devastation combined with the passivity of the working class movement might well generate a despairing terrorist response. It is our job, by ideological struggle and by rebuilding workers’ confidence and power at the base, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Last updated on 31.3.2002