Marxism and terrorism

Issue: 110

Gareth Jenkins

‘Terrorism’ is the new global threat against which global war must now be fought, according to ruling class politicians and the media. Bin Laden and Al Qaida constitute for them an ubiquitous presence against which the democratic values of civilisation are ranged—a demon to be exorcised at all costs, even at the cost of civil liberties.

This attitude affects sections of the left. Those who showed sympathy to organisations (such as the Provisional IRA) using ‘terrorist’ methods in the 1970s now all too often take a completely opposite view of today’s ‘terrorism’. The old ‘terrorist’ organisation, it seems, could be viewed positively since their actions could be justified in the name of a secular, progressive ideology, such as national liberation, anti-imperialism or socialism. Today’s, by contrast, is seen as ‘Islamofascist’ or ‘reactionary anti-capitalist’, and therefore to be condemned as no different from (and possibly worse than) the system it is attacking.

But whatever the specific differences between terrorism currently and that of the past—and these are less than appearances suggest—the question of how to respond is one that socialists have frequently had to confront.

Both Marx and Engels, on different occasions, had to respond to the kind of strategy that emphasised not mass action but actions carried out by individuals (such as blowing up buildings or assassinating hated individuals)—what came to be known as ‘terrorism’ in the latter half of the 19th century.1

The first occasion was with the Fenians, or Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary secret society dedicated to the emancipation of Ireland. In September 1867 local Fenians in Manchester blew open the locked door of a Black Maria in which the two arrested leaders of the organisation were being taken to court. A police sergeant died in the explosion. Four of the rescuers were arrested, together with a totally innocent fifth man picked up in a raid in Manchester’s Irish district, and were charged with murder and sentenced to death. Three were hanged on 23 November, despite the fact that none of the accused had fired a fatal shot and the death had been accidental. The savagery of the British government’s reaction to the incident led to huge demonstrations of support for the cause of Irish independence—from English workers as well as Irish people. However, within a couple of weeks another attempt by Fenians to rescue a leader went badly awry. The explosives used to release a Fenian organiser from Clerkenwell prison in London caused a neighbouring row of houses to collapse, killing seven of the inhabitants and seriously injuring another 120.

What was the reaction of Marx and Engels? Marx had thrown his energies into getting the International to support the demand for Irish independence, convinced that unless the power of the English landlords was weakened working class revolution in England would not be possible.2 So it was in the interests of English workers to support the resistance of the Irish. Marx wrote to Engels on 2 November, ‘I have sought in every way to provoke this manifestation of the English workers in support of Fenianism’.3 In a letter to Engels on 7 November he said, ‘This business stirs the feelings of the intelligent part of the working class here’.4 Engels echoed this sentiment in a letter to Kugelmann in Germany: ‘The London proletarians declare every day more openly for the Fenians and hence—an unheard-of and splendid thing here—for, first, a violent and, secondly, an anti-English movement’.5

Not all progressive opinion was prepared to back the Fenians. The Reform League, an organisation set up in 1865 to agitate for universal suffrage, and on which leading trade union members of the International sat, passed a resolution condemning Fenianism. This put pressure on the International itself, and it took all Marx’s efforts to ensure that the International maintained a hard position. The Clerkenwell explosion clearly did not help matters. Marx wrote furiously to Engels the day after:

The last exploit of the Fenians in Clerkenwell was a very stupid thing. The London masses, who have shown great sympathy for Ireland, will be made wild by it and be driven into the arms of the of the government party. One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of the Fenian emissaries. There is always a kind of fatality about such a secret, melodramatic sort of conspiracy.6

A few days later Engels replied, saying, ‘The stupid affair in Clerkenwell was obviously the work of a few specialised fanatics; it is the misfortune of all conspiracies that they lead to such stupidities, because “after all something must happen, after all something must be done”.’7

Even before the Clerkenwell outrage, Engels had agreed with Marx that ‘the beastliness of the English must not make us forget that the leaders of this sect are mostly asses and partly exploiters, and we cannot in any way make ourselves responsible for the stupidities which occur in every conspiracy. And they are certain to happen’.8 But none of this lessened their public championing of the cause for which the Fenians fought.

So support for Fenianism, as an expression of national struggle, was tempered with clarity about the nature of the movement’s leadership (its class composition) and the weakness of its tactics (the reliance on conspiratorial means). What we see here, in embryonic form, are two aspects of the Marxist tradition. One is an understanding that socialists do not put conditions on their support for movements of national resistance to imperialist oppression. The second is an understanding of the limitations of such movements—the idea that a select few can produce change through conspiratorial methods inevitably isolates them from the mass of the population and dooms them ultimately to failure.9 The question is not whether socialists stand aside because they perceive these limitations. It is rather that they build support on class terms—as Marx, through the First International, was able to do, even as Fenianism declined.

Individual terrorism in Russia

The deaths at Clerkenwell were accidental—the Fenians had not intended to kill people, though such accidents are the likely consequence of conspiratorial methods. The deliberate targeting of individuals, ‘terrorism’ in the modern sense of the term, did become the method used by some anarchists and by a section of Russian revolutionaries (the Narodniks and their successors) in the period from the late 1870s through to the early 20th century.10

In Russia Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will organisation) carried out a series of actions targeting highly placed government officials, culminating in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The Narodniks’ turn to terrorism was a response to the failure of the earlier attempt to ‘go to the people’ and stir the peasantry into overthrowing Tsarism—an attempt that had led to savage repression by the autocracy. Only terror, they now believed, would undermine the people’s confiden in the government and therefore increase their receptivity to its overthrow.11 When Vera Zasulich was tried for the attempted assassination of the brutal governor of Moscow in 1878, such was the hatred for the victim and sympathy for the perpetrator that the jury acquitted her. Only a complete reactionary would have criticised her for the ‘immorality’ of trying to kill a hated member of the ruling class.12 Marx himself refused to condemn this kind of violence. After the assassination of Alexander II he wrote to his daughter Jenny that terror was ‘a historically inevitable means of action of which it was as useless to discuss as that of the earthquake at Chios’, and he admired the Russian terrorists as ‘excellent people through and through…simple, straightforward, heroic’.13

His admiration was not some contradictory admiration for what he had condemned in Fenian conspiratorial politics. Russia, unlike England, had arrived at such a point of disintegration that it was ‘undoubtedly on the eve of a revolution’.14 In this context the emergence of a revolutionary current dedicated to helping the tottering state collapse, whatever the means, could not impede the process. In England, on the other hand, the choice of means made a difference. Fenian conspiracies might damage the goal of an independent Ireland by hindering the process of developing the consciousness of English workers.

At the same time the question of what social force in Russian society could shape the future was thrown into relief by the Narodniks’ activities. The rationale behind the tactics of first ‘going to the people’ and then turning to terrorism was their belief that the archaic peasant form of common ownership (the obshchina) could become the basis of a higher form of society, thus enabling Russia to bypass capitalism altogether. But with the failure of both tactics, some Narodniks began to question this belief—and the centrality of the peasantry.15

One of those people was Vera Zasulich herself. She, among others, came to look to the social force that capitalism created in the late 1880s and 1890s, the new working class. And in particular Lenin, who did most to apply Marxist ideas to Russian conditions, developed an analysis that not only rejected Narodnik views of social development but their terrorist methods. This did not involve a rejection of revolution (Lenin’s critique was not based on waiting for capitalism to mature). It was, rather, a criticism of the effectiveness of terrorism as a revolutionary method now that capitalism in Russia was developing a working class capable of self-organisation in its own defence. Tight revolutionary organisation was as important for Lenin as it had been for the Narodniks. But where, for Lenin, revolutionary organisation was central to the self-organisation of the working class, for the Narodniks it was a substitute for popular self-activity. This was a consequence of their politics—the failure to ‘inspire’ the peasants by propaganda had led the Narodniks to the conclusion that terror, committed by themselves in the name of a class that did not act for itself, could serve as a short cut to revolution. Their desperate impatience was a tragic mistake, as isolation only made it easier for the authorities to harass and infiltrate the Narodniks—even to carry out terroristic acts themselves. Terror became a self-defeating strategy. For Lenin, on the contrary, the interventionist element of revolutionary politics was to be rooted in the self-activity of the working class.

Lenin combined a high degree of respect for the revolutionary traditions of Darodism with a sharp critique of its method and programme. Thus, writing in 1899, he maintained that Russian revolutionary Marxism ‘carries on the cause and the traditions of the whole preceding revolutionary movement in Russia’ and ‘marches towards the goal that was already indicated by the glorious representatives of the old Narodnaya Volya’.16 He immediately qualified this by adding that the difference between the two was that the heroism of the Narodniks rested on too narrow a social base and an inadequate theoretical understanding of social developments.17 But what might have been a forgivable error, in view of the repressive political conditions and undeveloped social forces of the period of the late 1870s and early 1880s (the period of Narodnaya Volya), was no longer so at the turn of the century, when the working class movement had made enormous strides forward.

The argument became particularly important with a new wave of ‘terrorist’ actions carried out by the Social Revolutionaries (the political descendants of Narodnya Volya). It started with an assassination of a government minister in 1902 and reached its peak with some 82 assassinations in 1907, before rapidly tailing off. The most notorious assassination was of Plehve, the minister of the interior, in 1904. One of the perpetrators, Azef, was exposed as a police agent in 1909.

Lenin, writing in 1902, was altogether harder than he had been with the Narodniks. These were, he claimed, ‘stormy times’ after a long period of tranquillity, and had stirred up sections of the intelligentsia, ‘caught up in the maelstrom of events and who have neither theoretical principles nor social roots’.18 On the face of it, the Social Revolutionaries’ advocacy of ‘terrorism, not in place of work among the masses, but precisely for and simultaneously with that work’19 seemed to acknowledge the primacy of the working class. But this acknowledgement masked a move away from class politics, just as much as the swing to reformism by sections of the left. For Lenin terrorism reflected ‘an utter failure to understand the mass movement and a lack of faith in it’. It revealed ‘the inefficacy of terrorism, for without the working class all bombs are powerless, patently powerless’.20 Even more stupid, according to Lenin, was the justification for terrorism. The Social Revolutionaries claimed that neither the ‘crowd’ (ie the masses) nor revolutionary organisations were safe from the repressive might of the state. Only ‘individuals or small groups that are ceaselessly, and even in ignorance of one another, preparing for attack, and are attacking’ have the ‘elusiveness’21 that makes them immune. This, for Lenin, was a complete inversion of the obvious truth that ‘the only “hope” of the revolution is the “crowd”’ and its revolutionary leadership.22 Lenin was equally scathing about the claims made by Social Revolutionaries that heroic single combat excites a spirit of struggle in us all. On the contrary, he argued:

Only new forms of the mass movement or the awakening of new sections of the masses to independent struggle really rouses a spirit of struggle and courage in all. Single combat, however, inasmuch as it remains single combat, has the immediate effect of simply creating a shortlived sensation, while indirectly it even leads to apathy and passive waiting for the next bout.23

Lenin made one other point about this type of terrorism—which was to argue that the ‘present day terrorists are really “economists” [ie those who restricted the movement to reform using trade union methods] turned inside out’.24 In putting terrorists and reformists in the same basket, he did not mean, of course, that their methods were the same. He meant, rather, that both tendencies evaded the central role of how workers themselves would change society and how political organisation related to that. One tendency substituted terror for mass work, the other reform for revolution. One looked to the intelligentsia as the agent of political change, the other to the liberal bourgeoisie to lead the struggle against Tsarism.25 The relevance of this point today is that parliamentary reform is not the alternative to terrorism when it comes to changing society—neither looks to working class self-activity as the lever for revolutionary change. In that sense, a
reformist and a terrorist approach, for all their differences, share the same limitations.

‘Propaganda of the deed’

The use of ‘terrorist’ methods was not confined to Russia. An anarchist concept of ‘propaganda of the deed’ inspired a wave of assassinations (and attempted assassinations) of high-ranking government figures, mostly in Western Europe. The high point was a series of spectacular terrorist attacks in France, which culminated in the assassination of President Sadi-Carnot in 1894.

Capitalist development had produced not just a working class. Its victims in the great cities included a mass of déclassé individuals, whose hatred of capitalism expressed itself in forms of individual revolt. In France the defeat of the Paris Commune of 1871 cast a long, demoralising shadow over working class politics. The Third Republic itself was the corrupt plaything of politicians jockeying for office, which even the socialists were seeking representation in. ‘Propaganda of the deed’ offered a solution, alongside which socialist arguments about the working masses seemed unexciting. Settling scores with hated ruling class figures seemed better than talking about collective answers to the system.26 But this impatient desire to force the pace of history was elitist in its effects. It opened the way to a terrorism much more indiscriminate in its targets than the older Narodnik terrorism.

Some, but by no means all, terrorism was directed at ruling class institutions or representatives. Thus in 1886 Charles Gallo hurled sulphuric acid into the Paris stock exchange and then fired three random revolver shots. No one was hurt and Gallo used his trial, at which he was sentenced to 20 years hard labour, to give an hour and a half lecture on anarchism. He had intended, he stated, to carry out ‘an act of propaganda by the deed for anarchist doctrine’.27 Even more spectacularly in 1893, Auguste Vaillant threw a bomb into the French parliament, which produced a lot of damage but no loss of life. The perpetrator this time was executed, his last words being, ‘Vive l’anarchie! My death will be avenged’—which it was six months later with the assassination of the French president.28
But other terrorist attacks were less discriminating in their targets. A week after Vaillant’s execution, Emile Henry, the 18 year old son of a Communard, threw a bomb into the crowded station cafe at the Gare St Lazare in Paris.29 Many were wounded and one died later of his wounds.30 At his trial, Henry was asked why he had attacked innocent people. His reply, which became notorious, was that ‘there are no innocents’:

I was convinced that the existing organisation was bad. I wanted to struggle against it so to hasten its disappearance. I brought to the struggle a profound hatred, intensified every day by the revolting spectacle of a society where all is base, all is cowardly, where everything is a barrier to the development of human passions, to the generous tendencies of the heart, to the free flight of thought.31

His justification for not sparing innocents, he went on to say, was that anarchists:

…do not spare bourgeois women and children, because the wives and the children of those they [the anarchists] love are not spared either. Are not those children innocent victims who, in the slums, die slowly of anaemia because bread is scarce at home? Or those women who grow pale in your workshops and wear themselves out to earn 40 sous a day?32

Henry’s one regret was that there had not been more victims33—which followed from the false proposition that the failure to rouse the masses was the consequence of not having produced a big enough shock.

Henry’s action caused revulsion. However, that was not true of anarchist attacks whose targets were the rich and powerful or the institutions of bourgeois society, for which there was much greater sympathy. Terrorism became ‘popular’34—not least because the French ruling class reacted so viciously (even executing those who had not caused loss of life), and because it seemed that someone was taking revenge on bourgeois society for its crimes. One terrorist, Ravachol, who bombed two apartment blocks in 1892 in retaliation for sentences meted out to May Day demonstrators, was compared by one artist to Christ, gave his name to a new verb (ravacholiser— to blow up), and had a song praising dynamite composed in his honour. The reason for such ‘popularity’ is not difficult to discover. Terrorists may have an elitist disdain for mass action and attempt to substitute themselves for the masses. But the masses themselves, in the absence of self-confidence and self-organisation, may secretly or openly admire those who appear to be able to do what they themselves can only dream of—take revenge for their humiliation.

The wave of ‘terrorist’ attacks was a test for the relatively young and inexperienced French socialist movement of the day. It had made a breakthrough in electoral terms by the early 1890s, and a coalition of socialists now had a significant parliamentary presence. But how would they react to the way in which the French government used the bombing of parliament and the assassination of President Sadi-Carnot to rush through laws that clamped down on freedom of expression and civil liberties—and served as a useful diversion from the festering financial crisis around the Panama Canal? Engels wrote to Marx’s son in law Paul Lafargue that these ‘infamous laws’ would be used more against the socialists than the anarchists,35 but that ‘you will defeat it and you will emerge from the struggles infinitely stronger than you went into it’.36

Jules Guesde, a leader of the supposedly most revolutionary of the socialist currents, denounced anarchist violence and declared that ‘socialism will succeed only by the peacefully expressed will of the people’.37 The socialists’ best parliamentary orator, Jean Jaurès, responded in a way that made fewer concessions to prevailing ideas, despite his recent origins in nonsocialist radicalism. He sympathised with what had motivated terrorists like Ravachol and Vaillant.38 He went onto the offensive in parliament by focusing on the government’s multiple ‘searches and arrests among the poor’, its moves to control political activity in the working class movement, its use of agents provocateurs, its prohibition of the discussion of ‘anarchist ideas’, and its introduction of special and secret ‘correctional tribunals’ to replace jury trials.39 Jaurès also tried to introduce legislation to reform taxation as a way of pinpointing where the real problem lay—with ‘the tyranny of capitalism’. The socialist parliamentary bloc was only a minority, and stood no chance of defeating the ‘infamous laws’. But their forthright opposition shifted the spotlight away from anarchist outrages, exposed the corrupt and undemocratic reality of the system, and shook the government to its core. At the climax of the debate, Jaurès denounced ‘all men in public life who have sold their votes or been involved in financial scandal’. They, he said:

…will be judged as the real cause of anarchist propaganda… When the same barque carries the corrupt politician and the murdering anarchist into hell, they will find much to talk about, for they will be the complementary products of the same social order.40

Thus Jaurès was able to stand against anarchist terrorism but not concede an inch to the system against which it fought.

Trotsky’s polemic against individual terrorism

Leon Trotsky’s wrote two critiques of individual terrorism—the first written in 1909, in response to the unmasking of the assassin of Plehve as a police agent, and the second in 1911, in response to terrorist moods in the Austrian working class.41 They sum up the accumulated wisdom of the Marxist tradition on the question but need some contextualising.

In the first article Trotsky starts by explaining that the systematic terror used by the Russian Narodniks stemmed from the way in which the Tsarist state, built up by using European capital and technology rather than native resources, appeared to stand above society. It appeared to be ‘a purely external organ of coercion, having no roots in the social organisation itself…elevating itself above all classes of society’,42 including even the privileged classes who were denied the opportunity to develop the state along ‘normal’ (bourgeois democratic) lines. This also affected the Europeanised representatives of Russian intellectual life, the intelligentsia. The state’s social isolation and lack of roots gave rise to the illusion (rapidly shattered) that no real social forces were needed to destroy Tsarism. Explosives in the hands of a dedicated few would be sufficient to wipe out this external organ of coercion. But what had been a heroic illusion in a period of undeveloped social forces had now been overtaken by the development of real social forces—the working class and its political self-organisation. However much the Social Revolutionaries might try to hang on to terrorist methods by talking about them as alongside, instead of in place of, mass struggle, they are incompatible methods:

Engendered by the absence of a revolutionary class, regenerated later by a lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses, terrorism can maintain itself only by exploiting the weakness and disorganisation of the masses, minimising their conquests and exaggerating their defeats.43

And precisely because it substitutes secretive, conspiratorial organisation for the kind of organisation that looks to mass action, it is open to police infiltration.

In the later article, Trotsky develops this argument to take in non-Russian conditions. He starts by dealing with the accusation directed at revolutionary socialists that they use violence (terrorism) to achieve their ends. Trotsky’s defence is not to deny the role of violence, but to point out that for the capitalist class to condemn strikers for being ‘violent’ over picketing or dealing with scabs is sheer hypocrisy, compared with the violence of the capitalist state machine (the law, the police and the armed forces). Indeed, if they want to say that ‘inspiring fear or doing harm’ to the class enemy is terrorism, than ‘the entire class struggle is nothing but terrorism’.44

This is followed by a sharp condemnation of terrorism in the much narrower sense of the term, of which assassination of government ministers (the classic form of individual terrorism) or of employers is only one example. Trotsky includes machine breaking and factory arson as examples of terrorism—which may appear surprising, since neither is specifically directed at individuals. His point, however, is the class motivation for such targets—whether persons or property—has nothing specifically proletarian about it, and therefore will not strengthen the collective confidence or organisation of the working class, as strike action can. Trotsky’s repeated emphasis on the importance of the role of strike action needs further comment. He does not confine it to the question of ‘economics’—he relates it to politics, including parliamentary politics. Given its position at the heart of capitalist production, the working class can only advance its interests collectively. Methods that rely on individual ‘terror’ cannot, and indeed may produce confusion—if the ruling class can be defeated by shooting its representative, what is the point of the class struggle? Hence Trotsky’s conclusion:

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 toward a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.45

Therefore ‘propaganda of the deed’ has the opposite effect to that claimed for it by the anarchists. It does not arouse the masses. Instead, it focuses attention away from self-organisation onto the ‘terrorists’. A new minister replaces the old one, the daily grind of exploitation resumes. The only change is increased police oppression. This is as true of life after 9/11 and 7/7 as it was in Trotsky’s day.

But we have to be careful how we use Trotsky’s argument. Sometimes the condemnation of terrorism implies that but for the terrorists the conditions for progress would be favourable—the state would have no excuse to attack us. This is to make the terrorists as big a problem as the system they hope to weaken. It is as if capitalism were not always seeking to restrict our sphere of action, and as if the working class movement did not have the strength to recover from any temporary setback. As Trotsky put it, ‘Capitalist society needs an active, mobile, and intelligent proletariat—it cannot, therefore, bind the proletariat hand and foot for very long’.46 A one-sided use of Trotsky’s polemic can reproduce the very pessimism that Trotsky denounced in individual terrorism.

Socialists in Britain and the IRA

In the early 1970s repression by British forces in the North of Ireland led to a bombing campaign by Republicans. The IRA had wide, if passive, support in the Catholic community, because it was seen as their defender from both the British army and the Orange Order. There could be no question of joining in the chorus of hatred from the British media and politicians. But what, then, should the attitude of socialists be? Some, notably the Militant Tendency (forerunners of the Socialist Party), argued that only class politics could solve the national question that still existed as a result of partition. While abstractly true, this evaded the question of whether socialists should support the national struggle. Others in effect argued that one had to take sides in a civil war—planting bombs in pubs, shops, factories and the like were legitimate tactics in the military fight against the occupying British forces.

The International Socialists (forerunners of the SWP) recognised that there were elements of a civil war in the North of Ireland, but concluded that the limitations of Republicanism required socialists to raise criticism within the context of overall support for the national struggle. Socialist Worker argued in an editorial on 12 February 1972:

Unconditional but critical support for all those, including both IRAs, fighting imperialism. By unconditional we mean support regardless of our criticism of the leadership and tactics. By critical we mean opposing the sowing of illusions that the struggle can finally be won except by the victory of the working class fighting on a programme of social as well as national liberation.47

In particular, Nationalist politics (and tactics based purely on defence of the minority Catholic community) would not appeal to Protestant workers or break the hold that Tory Orangeism had on them. That could only happen if there was a sizeable working class organisation that demonstrated as great a hostility to the Green Tories in the South as it did to the Orange Tories in the North. In practice, the nationalist politics of the IRA meant that it could not do this. Therefore, despite unconditional support for the Republican movement because its defence of the Catholic minority challenged the power of the British state, there had to be criticism. To subordinate class to nation was to fail to see that Green bosses (both North and South) were as much the enemy as the Orange bosses, and to fail to see Protestant workers as part of the solution. Indeed, unless anti-imperialism moved beyond a politics based purely on nationalism, unless it found a way to class politics, it could not even solve the national struggle. Duncan Hallas and Jim Higgins, two leading members, defended the Socialist Worker editorial in an internal bulletin, writing:

The line of our organisation—which is the application of the theory of permanent revolution in Ireland—is that the overthrow of imperialism in Ireland
(North or South) is impossible except on the basis of a mass movement with a revolutionary socialist leadership… The defence of the Catholic community against governmental terrorism helps this development by challenging the power of the state and thus raising the possibility of its destruction… The bombing campaign hinders the development by strengthening the ties of the Orange workers to Stormont. And it deflects the Catholic working class militants by giving them a false perspective and activity.48

This argument rested on an analysis that saw that British imperialism could not be defeated simply on the basis of a struggle waged by the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland (one third of one quarter of the population of the island as a whole). It had to gain active support from elsewhere—from the working class of the Irish Republic and from at least a section of Protestant workers in Northern Ireland—and some degree of sympathy from workers in Britain. The bombing campaign made this more difficult. The bombs inevitably had the unintended effect of killing innocent bystanders, enabling the ruling class to isolate the Republicans in the South and to frighten people of Irish descent in Britain away from active support for the struggle—so that the very big demonstrations London saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s were not replicated in the 1980s and 1990s. The correctness of our arguments is to be seen today, with the abandonment of the armed struggle by the IRA and the willingness of the Republican leadership to participate in the institutions of the still-partitioned North.

Against this background, Socialist Worker year after year carried a double argument. Its main component was that the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland—and their by-product, the bombings in Britain—were a consequence of the British presence, the latest stage in the centuries-old imperialist domination of Ireland. For this reason, resistance to the British troops was quite legitimate. But it was also necessary to make it clear that the bombings were not a way to defeat imperialism and had therefore to be criticised.
An important example was provided after a bomb planted in a pub in Birmingham in November 1974 killed 19 workers and injured some 200 other people. Hysteria swept though the city, whipped up by the media, creating a climate in which any Irish immigrant was subject to at least verbal abuse, and in which six totally innocent workers were sentenced to life imprisonment—serving 16 years before being freed. Socialist Worker’s response to bombing was a three-tiered headline: ‘Stop the Bombings. Fight Repression in Britain and in Ireland. Troops Out of Ireland.’
The front page spelt it out:

The root cause of the bombings is the repression in Northern Ireland. Internment without trial, sectarian murders by unchallenged Protestant gangs, bullying searches and killings by the British army have driven the minority to despair. Senseless planting of bombs seems to some of them the only way out. Repression does not cancel out the terrorism bred by repression. Both increase together.

Workers’ anger in Birmingham in the past week has shown that there are not enough socialists organised in the factories to fight back powerfully enough against anti-Irish opinion, to argue that the militancy of the British working class should be used to strike at the root of the Irish troubles… The British government and its army…bear the responsibility for 400 years of Irish misery.

An article on the second page of the paper went through the history of British rule in Ireland, and the way a peaceful movement for civil rights in 1968-69 had been attacked by the full might of the state: ‘The way the people of Birmingham felt last Friday is how the Northern Ireland Catholic community have been feeling every day for the last five years.’ The editorial concluded:

We have always made it clear that socialists in Britain have to defend the right of Irish people to struggle to throw the British troops out of Ireland. That includes the right of Republicans to organise to fight against these troops… The planting of bombs in places frequented by ordinary workers cannot contribute to the defence of the Catholic areas or the driving out of British troops…that is why we condemn the bombings… But we have to continue to insist that the precondition for a solution to Ireland’s problems is the withdrawal of British troops.49

Today’s Islamist terrorists

The media and much of the left would have us believe that today’s Islamist terrorists are qualitatively worse than any in the past. Even the Irish Republicans—whose very voices were banned from the airwaves just a dozen years ago—are now presented as rational compared to them. What dominates is the image of the suicide bomber as a crazed Islamic fanatic.

But there is nothing specifically Islamist about the methods of the suicide bomb. The leading practitioners of suicide attacks as a weapon do not come from the Middle East, nor are they Muslims. They are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, whose ideology is not religious but ‘Marxist-Leninist’50 (though their cultural background is Hindu), and whose aim is the secular goal of national liberation. Robert Pape, who has closely analysed suicide attacks between 1980 and 2003, reckons they are responsible for the biggest single group of attacks—some 76 out of a total of 315. This is more than the number committed by the Palestinian group Hamas.51 And not all suicide bombers from ‘Islamic’ groups are Muslims. Hezbollah, which emerged in Lebanon in the 1980s, was the first modern movement to use the method (they forced US troops to withdraw after 241 Marines were killed in a single attack). Of the 41 suicide terrorists involved in attacks between 1982 and 1986, only three were Islamic fundamentalists. The rest were overwhelmingly Communists or socialists—and three were Christians!52

Suicide bombing campaigns may be couched in Islamic terms. That does not mean that religious fundamentalism explains their goals. Pape concludes from the data of his survey:

There is not the close connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that many people think. Rather, what all suicide terrorist campaigns have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal—to compel democracies to withdraw forces from the terrorists’ national homeland. Religion is rarely the root cause, although it is often used as a tool by terrorist organisations in recruiting and in other efforts in service of the broader strategic objective.53

This assessment is backed by an analysis of Al Qaida from another source. The organisation is usually taken as the epitome of Islamic fundamentalism—the group most bent on declaring a religious war on the West, against modernity and secularism. But the question that Stephen Holmes rightly raises is whether religious belief causes an action (such as the bombing of the twin towers) or whether the action may be motivated by another cause but be expressed in religious form:

Does Osama Bin Laden want to eject the United States from Saudi Arabia because its troops were desecrating sacred soil, or is he aggrieved, like any anti-colonialist or nationalist insurgent, that the United States is plundering his country’s national resources? Does Ayman al-Zawahiri, the physician who founded Egyptian Islamic Jihad and who is usually considered Bin Laden’s closest associate, want to overthrow Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak because the latter is an apostate or because he is a tyrant?54

Difficult though it may be to disentangle the religious from the non-religious, Holmes’s conclusion about the nature of Al Qaida’s ‘war’ on the US is substantially the same at Pape’s:

The vast majority of Bin Laden’s public statements provide secular, not religious, rationales for 9/11. The principal purpose of the attack was to punish the ‘unjust and tyrannical America’. The casus belli he invokes over and over again is injustice not impiety. True, he occasionally remarks that the United States has declared war on god, but such statements would carry little conviction if not seconded by claims that the United States is tyrannising and exploiting Muslim people… Bin Laden almost never justifies terrorism against the West as a means for subordinating Western unbelievers to the true faith. Instead, he almost always justifies terrorism against the West as a form of legitimate self-defence.55

In other words, the goal of Al Qaida is no different from other national liberation movements—to achieve independence by forcing the imperialist power to retreat. It may express itself in religious terms, but in essence it pursues the same aim as previous secular-nationalist movements in the Middle East—the defeat of US imperialism and its allies in the region.56

It is a mistake to think of the strategy of suicide bombing as betraying an irrationalism that derives from Islamic fundamentalism. There is a rationale for the adoption of this strategy that stems from the problem of defeating an enemy in conditions of extreme inequality of resources. The oppressor possesses a military might unimaginably greater than anything the oppressed have at their disposal. The oppressed cannot hope to inflict on the enemy the kind of material damage that will force the oppressor to back off. All they can hope to do is inflict psychological damage that comes from showing that the oppressed will stop at nothing—not even self-sacrifice—to terrorise the oppressor country. As Pape puts it, ‘Suicide terrorism attempts to inflict pain on the opposing society…and so induce the government to concede, or the population to revolt against the government’.57

This is a ‘strategy for weak actors’ who lack the ‘normal’ military means for fighting. Suicide bombing may be a dirty, inhumane way of fighting (because it targets civilians). However, it derives from not being able to compete with the violence that the oppressor can dish out supposedly ‘cleanly’ (through high-tech operations) but which is much more extensive and devastating than anything a suicide bomber can inflict. The hope, too, is that the preparedness to use one’s body as a self-sacrificial killing machine will inspire the oppressed to give their support to the struggle.

It is a mistake to think that suicide bombers are psychologically driven by Islamic fanaticism. Rather, what motivates them to action is rage at material conditions of oppression and exploitation—which is then expressed by commitment to a religious outlook and way of behaving. Bombers are not some alien ‘other’—they are just like us, or rather just like anyone else who is moved to anger by inequality, poverty and injustice. This is what we know of the background of one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta:

The grievances he loudly and frequently articulated against the United States and the Muslim autocracies that the United States supports were almost entirely secular. Most of those who knew him before 1996 stress not Atta’s religious piety…but his implacable fury at the plight of the poor and the indifference of the rich… He was bitterly angry at the visible juxtaposition, in Cairo, of extravagant and frivolous luxury with mass squalor and hopelessness. Egypt’s elite, in particular, was hypocritical, he believed. They showed a ‘democratic face’ to the West, while displaying complete indifference to the misery of ordinary people at home. They had sold their country to the West for trinkets.58

Just as Henry, the French bomber of the café at the Gare St Lazare more than a century ago, saw bourgeois women and children as ‘guilty’ by association, so there are people suffering from imperialism across the world (and not just Muslims) who see the ordinary inhabitants of the oppressor nation as equally ‘guilty’ by association with what ‘their’ nation is doing. This is a terrible inversion of the argument that says that because Bush and Blair were elected their actions in unleashing war are legitimate. The terrorist logic is that the population cannot be ‘innocent’ because they voted for Bush and Blair.

This is the politics of despair. It is also the consequence of seeing the fight against injustice in non-class terms. It is the same logic that led sections of Irish Nationalists to see ordinary British people as part of the problem. David O’Connell, one of the militaristic leaders of the Republicans in the mid-1970s (before they were displaced by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness), argued after the Birmingham bombings:

For five years, the British government has been waging a campaign of terror…against the people of Ireland. What have we got from the British public? Total indifference. The British government and the British public must realise that they will suffer the consequences.59

Apart from the lack of religious language, it is exactly the same argument that those who back Al Qaida resort to today. Socialist Worker’s comment at the time still applies:

This conclusion must be opposed by every socialist. It equates the rulers…with the people. Our whole argument rests upon the fact that society is divided into classes with opposed interests.60

Just as applicable is this analysis of the politics of an organisation that embraces such a logic:

It is not, as the press and right wing politicians pretend, made up of bloodthirsty maniacs—after all, it is the right wing press and politicians who have always supported the bombing by British armed forces of innocent civilians anywhere in the world… The real point…is that its leaders see the real division in the world as that between nations, not between classes…like middle class politicians everywhere.61

It is just such a logic that thinks only a tiny group of dedicated fighters can avenge the wrongs in society, that the mass of people is either corrupt or incapable of stirring into action—unless ‘exemplary’ action is taken by these dedicated fighters. And because this is the politics of despair, the greater the impotence of those caught in this spiral, the bigger the dream of destruction—the better to make an impact.

Suicide bombings are not some barbaric throwback to pre-modernity. They are a horribly distorted response to the very real horrors of imperialism and capitalism. The scale and reach of some present-day attacks is greater than any terrorist organisation has been able to carry out in the past. But the devastation and death toll are is still on a massively smaller scale than that routinely inflicted by the armed forces of ‘civilised’ states.

Never has a point made by Trotsky been more relevant. In criticising terrorist acts, he wrote, it was important not to side with ‘those bought and paid for moralists’ (Tony Blair and Jack Straw spring to mind) who ‘make solemn declarations about the “absolute value” of human life’.62

The Marxist tradition has never approved of terrorism as a method of social change, and sees it as a counterproductive strategy. But we cannot join in the condemnations that pour from the lips of politicians and from the media—despite enormous pressure to do so. We cannot begin to shape our critique of terrorism meaningfully unless we start with the horrors of imperialist violence and the Islamophobic racism directed at Muslims. We shall not be able to intervene in the movement to explain why young Muslims resort to such terrible tactics. Nor will be able to offer an alternative that can offer hope to those whose despair pushes them into the dead end of terrorism.

1: This idea of terror should not be confused with ‘the mobilisation of force to intimidate the counter-revolution’ (H Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: The ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, vol 3 (New York, 1986), p366), as practised by the Jacobins in the Great French Revolution and then, rather differently, by the Bolshevik government during the civil war, nor with the counter-revolutionary terror used by Stalin against the mass of the population in the 1930s.
2: See his later letter to Kugelman in K Marx and F Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question (Moscow, 1971), pp378-379.
3: As above, p144.
4: As above, p145.
5: As above, p146.
6: As above, p150.
7: As above.
8: As above, pp146-147.
9: Engels noted in 1882 that apart from putting pressure on the Liberals to act more decisively, the Fenians ‘cannot do anything but scare John Bull. Though he grows noticeably weaker on the outskirts of his Empire, he can still easily suppress any Irish rebellion so close to home’ (Marx and Engels, as above, p435).
10: And anarchism may have been the influence on the group called ‘The Invincibles’ (to which former Fenians belonged) who carried out the Phoenix Park murders (in Dublin) of two government appointees in 1882—or so Engels thought (see K Marx and F Engels, as above, p436).
11: Far from being a sign of strength, this was a desperate attempt to regain the initiative in the face of an infinitely stronger opponent.
12: Similarly, few working class people shed a tear when the Provisional IRA tried to blow up Margaret Thatcher and her government in 1984. Indeed, quite a few Socialist Worker readers regretted that the Provos had been unsuccessful—for all our carefully phrased arguments about the limitation of such action.
13: Quoted in B Nicolaesky and O Maenchen-Helfen, Karl Marx: Man and Fighter (Harmondsworth, 1976), p398.
14: K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, vol 24 (Moscow, 1989), p50. The quotation comes from the end of Engels’ critique of Russian refugee literature, published between 1874 and 1875 in the German socialist press. Though the crisis was to mature much more slowly than Engels had hoped, he was undoubtedly right to see that the apparently stable bulwark of European reaction was crumbling, thus opening a new chapter in European history.
15: Marx and Engels did not hold a deterministic view that Russia was bound to become capitalist (a view that invited a passive waiting on events). ‘If anything’, Engels argued, ‘can still save Russian communal ownership and give it a chance of growing into a new, really viable form—it is the proletarian revolution in Western Europe’ (Marx and Engels, as above, p48). This point was repeated in the 1881 preface to the second Russian edition of The Communist Manifesto—the peasant obshchina might survive if a Russian Revolution became ‘the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West’ (Marx and Engels, as above, p426).
16: V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 4 (Moscow, 1960), p181. (Lenin is quoting from the manifesto of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, published the year before, in the context of a polemic against tendencies that wanted to confine socialist activity to ‘economic’ agitation to improve workers’ conditions and ‘political’ support for liberal opposition to Tsarism.)
17: As above.
18: V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 6 (Moscow, 1961), p184.
19: Quoted in above, p188.
20: As above, p189.
21: As above, p189. Lenin is quoting from a Social Revolutionary leaflet.
22: As above, p190.
23: As above, p191. Worth noting is Lenin’s implied distinction between single and collective combat. As his comments on the need for an armed uprising in 1905 indicate, ‘intelligentsia terrorism’, separate from the mass movement, was something that had to be opposed, but not the kind of strength exemplified in ‘the terrorism of the great French Revolution’, which is ‘the strength of the revolutionary movement of the people’ (V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 8 (Moscow, 1962), pp160-161. Equally, Lenin considered it wrong to condemn guerrilla operations as ‘terrorist’ since they were neither acts of individual vengeance nor did they spring from lack of faith in working class insurrection (though, of course, mistakes were possible) (V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 10 (Moscow, 1962), pp117-118). The point, here, is that Lenin’s condemnation of individual terrorism was never a condemnation of revolutionary violence.
24: As above, p190.
25: The essence of Lenin’s critique of ‘economism’ in Russian Social Democracy was that in constraining socialist activity to ‘economic’ questions, on the one hand, and ‘political’ support for liberal-bourgeois demands, on the other, ‘economism’ was a variant, in the peculiar conditions of Russian society where democratic institutions barely existed, of the revisionist/reformist adaptation to parliamentarianism that had become a strong feature of socialist parties in Western Europe. See ‘A Retrograde Step in Russian Social-Democracy’ in V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 4 (Moscow, 1961), in particular pp278-279; and the section ‘What Is There in Common Between Economism and Terrorism?’ in What Is To Be Done? in V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 5 (Moscow, 1961), pp417-421.
26: Victor Serge left a vivid but critical impression of this kind of milieu (which he knew intimately as a result of his involvement with the notorious anarchist Bonnot gang on the eve of the First World War). What he encountered was ‘exacting idealism, in the breasts of uncomplicated men whose energy could find no outlet in achieving a higher dignity or sensibility, because any such outlet was physically denied to them. Conscious of their frustration, they battled like madmen and were beaten down. In those times the world was an integrated structure, so stable in appearance that no possibility of substantial change was visible within it. As it progressed up and up, and on and on, masses of people who lay in its path were all the while being crushed. The harsh condition of the workers improved only very slowly, and for the vast majority of the proletariat there was no way out. The declassed elements on the proletarian fringe found all roads barred to them except those which led to squalor and degradation. Above the heads of these masses, wealth accumulated, insolent and proud. The consequences of this situation arose inexorably: crime, class struggles and their trail of bloody strikes, and frenzied battles of One against All. These struggles also testified to the failure of an ideology’ (V Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary (Oxford, 1967), p42).
27: Joll, as above, p113.
28: As above, pp113-114.
29: Joll says the crowd consisted of ‘modest Parisian shopkeepers, clerks and even workers’ (p118). The question of the social composition of the crowd may seem irrelevant, but it is possible that, just as in a terrorist attack on a music hall in Lyons in 1882, Henry saw the cafe as an institution representative of ‘false, bourgeois values’ (Joll, as above, p112)—which may explain the motivation he provided at the trial (see the quotation below).
30: Both Kedward, as above, pp41-42, and Joll, as above, pp117-119, provide detailed accounts. According to Kedward, p42, at his trial Henry was clinical and detached. He welcomed the sentence of death and refused to apply for a reprieve. This calm readiness for death anticipates the acceptance of self-extinction that characterises today’s suicide bombers.
31: Quoted in Joll, as above, p118
32: Quoted in Joll, as above, p119.
33: Woodcock, as above.
34: Particularly in bohemian milieux. One anarchist writer, himself a victim of a bomb explosion in a restaurant, said, ‘What does humanity matter, provided the act is beautiful? (‘Qu’importe les vagues humanités, pourvu que le geste soit beau?’), quoted in Joll, as above, p152. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé, famed for his rarefied aestheticism, would not discuss ‘the acts of these saints’ when pressed for his reactions to terrorism (Joll, as above, p150). The Anglo-Polish writer Joseph Conrad drew a much less sympathetic portrait of anarchists and terrorism in his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, which was based on an attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory.
35: He was right. The first victim of these laws was a Breton socialist.
36: F Engels, P Lafargue and L Lafargue, Correspondence, vol 3 (1891-1895) (Moscow n.d. [1963]), pp337-338.
37: Quoted in H Goldberg, The Life of Jean Jaurès (Madison, 1962), p120.
38: He wrote in La petite République in early 1894 that Vaillant was not inherently evil—he was victim of society, moved by hatred of life to die for something meaningful. Along with other socialists he signed an appeal for clemency, which Sadi Carnot refused to grant. See Goldberg, as above, p121.
39: The equivalent then of today’s move to criminalise ‘the glorification of terrorism’ and to abolish habeas corpus for ‘terrorist offences’.
40: H Goldberg, as above, pp126-127. So shaken was the ministry that it survived a vote of censure by only one vote.
41: These can be found, printed in reverse order, together with comments by Trotsky on Stalinist smears against the Left Opposition in the 1930s and on the assassination of a Nazi official in Paris in 1938, in L Trotsky, Against Individual Terrorism (New York, 1974). The articles can also be found on the internet.
42: L Trotsky, as above, p11. The italics are Trotsky’s.
43: As above, p13.
44: As above, p5.
45: As above, p7 (the italics are Trotsky’s).
46: As above.
47: Reproduced in the conclusion to D Hallas and J Higgins, Marxism and Terrorism (March 1972), available at
48: See above.
49: Socialist Worker, 30 November 1974.
50: Which, of course, we should understand as Stalinist in derivation.
51: R Pape, Dying to Win (New York, 2005), p4. Pape is not sympathetic to his subject—which makes his analysis all the more convincing. His rejection of the myths surrounding ‘Islamic terrorism’ is because he sees them, and their use in Bush’s war on terror and occupation of Iraq, as counterproductive to the interests of ‘democracy’—ie US imperialism (which he supports).
52: As above, pp129-130.
53: As above, p38. For ‘democracies’ we must, of course, read ‘imperialist powers’.
54: Stephen Holmes, ‘Al-Qaeda, September 11, 2001’ in D Gambetta (ed), Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Oxford, 2005), p133.
55: As above, p164, 165.
56: It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss why Islamist organisations should have replaced national-secular ones. For an analysis of Islamism, class and revolution see C Harman, The Prophet and the Proletariat (London, 1999), reprinted from an article of the same name in International Socialism 64 (Autumn 1994).
57: As above, pp27-28.
58: Holmes, as above, p139.
59: Quoted in Socialist Worker, 30 November, 1974.
60: Socialist Worker, 30 November 1974.
61: As above.
62: Holmes, as above, p8.