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Why Marxists oppose Individual Terrorism
WHAT IS TERRORISM?
Why Marxists oppose Individual Terrorism
Leon Trotsky, 1909
Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining
about our terrorism. What they mean by this is rather unclear. They
would like to label all the activities of the proletariat directed
against the class enemy's interests as terrorism. The strike, in
their eyes, is the principal method of terrorism. The threat of a
strike, the organisation of strike pickets, an economic boycott of a
slave-driving boss, a moral boycott of a traitor from our own ranks
- all this and much more they call terrorism.
If terrorism is understood in this way as any action
inspiring fear in, or doing harm to, the enemy, then of course the
entire class struggle is nothing but terrorism. And the only
question remaining is whether the bourgeois politicians have the
right to pour out their flood of moral indignation about proletarian
terrorism when their entire state apparatus with its laws, police
and army is nothing but an apparatus for capitalist terror!
However, it must be said that when they reproach us with terrorism,
they are trying - although not always consciously - to give the word
a narrower, less indirect meaning. The damaging of machines by
workers, for example, is terrorism in this strict sense of the word.
The killing of an employer, a threat to set fire to a factory or a
death threat to its owner, an assassination attempt, with revolver
in hand, against a government minister - all these are terrorist
acts in the full and authentic sense. However, anyone who has an
idea of the true nature of international Social Democracy ought to
know that it has always opposed this kind of terrorism and does so
in the most irreconcilable way.
'Terrorising' with the threat of a strike, or actually conducting a
strike is something only industrial workers can do. The social
significance of a strike depends directly upon first, the size of
the enterprise or the branch of industry that it affects, and
second, the degree to which the workers taking part in it are
organised, disciplined, and ready for action. This is just as true
of a political strike as it is for an economic one. It continues to
be the method of struggle that flows directly from the productive
role of the proletariat in modern society.
Belittles the role of the masses
In order to develop, the capitalist system needs a
parliamentary superstructure. But because it cannot confine the
modern proletariat to a political ghetto, it must sooner or later
allow the workers to participate in parliament. In elections, the
mass character of the proletariat and its level of political
development - quantities which, again, are determined by its social
role, i.e. above all, its productive role - find their expression.
As in a strike, so in elections the method, aim, and result of the
struggle always depend on the social role and strength of the
proletariat as a class. 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.
Only the conscious and organised working class can send a strong
representation into the halls of parliament to look out for
proletarian interests. However, in order to murder a prominent
official you need not have the organised 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; and in the second, a purely mechanical
reaction identical anywhere - in China as in France - very striking
in its outward form (murder, explosions and so forth) but absolutely
harmless as far as the social system goes.
A strike, even of modest size, has social consequences:
strengthening of the workers' self-confidence, growth of the trade
union, and not infrequently even an improvement in productive
technology. The murder of a factory owner produces effects of a
police nature only, or a change of proprietors devoid of any social
significance. 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
shortlived; the capitalist state does not base itself on government
ministers and cannot be eliminated with them. The classes it serves
will always find new people; the mechanism remains intact and
continues to function.
But the disarray introduced into the ranks of the working masses
themselves by a terrorist attempt is much deeper. 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? If it makes sense to
terrify highly placed personages with the roar of explosions, where
is the need for the party? Why meetings, mass agitation and
elections if one can so easily take aim at the ministerial bench
from the gallery of parliament?
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-organisation 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.
The efforts of reaction to put an end to strikes and to the mass
workers' movement in general have always, everywhere, ended in
failure. Capitalist society needs an active, mobile and intelligent
proletariat; it cannot, therefore, bind the proletariat hand and
foot for very long. On the other hand, the anarchist 'propaganda of
the deed' has shown every time that the state is much richer in the
means of physical destruction and mechanical repression than are the
If that is so, where does it leave the revolution? Is it rendered
impossible by this state of affairs? Not at all. For the revolution
is not a simple aggregate of mechanical means. The revolution can
arise only out of the sharpening of the class struggle, and it can
find a guarantee of victory only in the social functions of the
proletariat. The mass political strike, the armed insurrection, the
conquest of state power - all this is determined by the degree to
which production has been developed, the alignment of class forces,
the proletariat's social weight, and finally, by the social
composition of the army, since the armed forces are the factor that
in time of revolution determines the fate of state power.
Social Democracy is realistic enough not to try to avoid the
revolution that is developing out of the existing historical
conditions; on the contrary, it is moving to meet the revolution
with eyes wide open. But - contrary to the anarchists and in direct
struggle against them - Social Democracy rejects all methods and
means that have as their goal to artificially force the development
of society and to substitute chemical preparations for the
insufficient revolutionary strength of the proletariat.
Before it is elevated to the level of a method of political
struggle, terrorism makes its appearance in the form of individual
acts of revenge. So it was in Russia, the classic land of terrorism.
The flogging of political prisoners impelled Vera Zasulich to give
expression to the general feeling of indignation by an assassination
attempt on General Trepov. Her example was imitated in the circles
of the revolutionary intelligentsia, who lacked any mass support.
What began as an act of unthinking revenge was developed into an
entire system in 1879-81. The outbreaks of anarchist assassination
in Western Europe and North America always come after some atrocity
committed by the government - the shooting of strikers or executions
of political opponents. The most important psychological source of
terrorism is always the feeling of revenge in search of an outlet.
There is no need to belabour the point that Social Democracy has
nothing in common with those bought-and-paid-for moralists who, in
response to any terrorist act, make solemn declarations about the
'absolute value' of human life. These are the same people who, on
other occasions, in the name of other absolute values - for example,
the nation's honour or the monarch's prestige - are ready to shove
millions of people into the hell of war. Today their national hero
is the minister who gives the sacred right of private property; and
tomorrow, when the desperate hand of the unemployed workers is
clenched into a fist or picks upon a weapon, they will start in with
all sorts of nonsense about the inadmissibility of violence in any
Whatever the eunuchs and pharisees of morality may say, the feeling
of revenge has its rights. It does the working class the greatest
moral credit that it does not look with vacant indifference upon
what is going on in this best of all possible worlds. Not to
extinguish the proletariat's unfulfilled feeling of revenge, but on
the contrary to stir it up again and again, to deepen it, and to
direct it against the real causes of all injustice and human
baseness - that is the task of the Social Democracy.
If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge
does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the
capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary
called a minister. To learn to see all the crimes against humanity,
all the indignities to which the human body and spirit are
subjected, as the twisted outgrowths and expressions of the existing
social system, in order to direct all our energies into a collective
struggle against this system - that is the direction in which the
burning desire for revenge can find its highest moral satisfaction.
The Bankruptcy of Individual Terrorism, 1909
For a whole month, the attention of everyone who was able to read
and reflect at all, both in Russia and throughout the world, has
been focused on Azef. His 'case' is known to one and all from the
legal newspapers and from accounts of the Duma debates over the
demand raised by Duma deputies for an interpellation about Azef.
Now Azef has had time to recede into the background. His name
appears less and less frequently in the newspapers. However, before
once and for all leaving Azef to the garbage heap of history, we
think it necessary to sum up the main political lessons - not as
regards the machinations of the Azef types per se, but with regard
to terrorism as a whole, and to the attitude held toward it by the
main political parties in the country.
Individual terror as a method for political revolution is our
Russian 'national' contribution.
Of course, the killing of 'tyrants' is almost as old as the
institution of 'tyranny' itself; and poets of all centuries have
composed more than a few hymns in honour of the liberating dagger.
But systematic terror, taking as its task the elimination of satrap
after satrap, minister after minister, monarch after monarch -
'Sashka after Sashka' (a diminutive referring to the two tsars
Alexander II and III), as an 1880s Narodnaya Volya (People's Will)
member familiarly formulated the programme for terror - this kind of
terror, adjusting itself to absolutism's bureaucratic hierarchy and
creating its own revolutionary bureaucracy, is the product of the
unique creative powers of the Russian intelligentsia.
Of course, there must be deep-seated reasons for this - and we
should seek them, first, in the nature of the Russian autocracy and,
second, in the nature of the Russian intelligentsia.
Before the very idea of destroying absolutism by mechanical means
could acquire popularity, the state apparatus had to be seen as a
purely external organ of coercion, having no roots in the social
organisation itself. And this is precisely how the Russian autocracy
appeared to the revolutionary intelligentsia.
Historical basis of Russian terrorism
This illusion had its own historical basis. Tsarism
took shape under the pressure of the more culturally advanced states
of the West. In order to hold its own in competition, it had to
bleed the popular masses dry, and in doing so it cut the economic
ground from under the feet of even the most privileged classes. And
these classes were not able to raise themselves to the high
political level attained by the privileged classes in the West.
To this, in the nineteenth century, was added the powerful pressure
of the European stock exchange. The greater the sums it loaned to
the tsarist regime, the less tsarism depended directly upon the
economic relations within the country.
By means of European capital, it armed itself with European military
technology, and it thus grew into a "self-sufficient" (in a relative
sense, of course) organisation, elevating itself above all classes
Such a situation could naturally give rise to the idea of blasting
this extraneous superstructure into the air with dynamite.
The intelligentsia had developed under the direct and immediate
pressure of the West; like their enemy, the state, they rushed ahead
of the country's level of economic development - the state,
technologically; the intelligentsia, ideologically.
Whereas in the older bourgeois societies of Europe revolutionary
ideas developed more or less parallel with the development of the
broad revolutionary forces, in Russia the intelligentsia gained
access to the ready-made cultural and political ideas of the West
and had their thinking revolutionised before the economic
development of the country had given birth to serious revolutionary
classes from which they could get support.
Outdated by history
Under these conditions, nothing remained for the
intelligentsia but to multiply their revolutionary enthusiasm by the
explosive force of nitro-glycerin. So arose the classical terrorism
of Narodnaya Volya.
The terror of the Social Revolutionaries was by and large a product
of those same historical factors: the "self-sufficient" despotism of
the Russian state, on the one hand, and the "self-sufficient"
Russian revolutionary intelligentsia on the other.
But two decades did not go by without having some effect, and by the
time the terrorists of the second wave appear, they do so as
epigones, marked with the stamp "outdated by history."
The epoch of capitalist "Sturm und Drang" (storm and stress) of the
1880s and 1890s produced and consolidated a large industrial
proletariat, making serious inroads into the economic isolation of
the countryside and linking it more closely with the factory and the
Behind the Narodnaya Volya, there really was no revolutionary class.
The Social Revolutionaries simply did not want to see the
revolutionary proletariat; at least they were not able to appreciate
its full historical significance.
Of course, one can easily collect a dozen odd quotations from Social
Revolutionary literature stating that they pose terror not instead
of the mass struggle but together with it. But these quotations bear
witness only to the struggle the ideologists of terror have had to
conduct against the Marxists - the theoreticians of mass struggle.
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 a "hermetic" conspiracy, that - if not logically, then
psychologically - it totally excludes agitational and organisational
work among the masses.
For terrorists, in the entire field of politics there exist only two
central focuses: the government and the Combat Organisation. "The
government is ready to temporarily reconcile itself to the existence
of all other currents," Gershuni (a founder of the Combat
Organisation of the SRs) wrote to his comrades at a time when he was
facing the death sentence, "but it has decided to direct all its
blows towards crushing the Social Revolutionary Party."
"I sincerely trust," said Kalayev (another SR terrorist) writing at
a similar moment, "that our generation, headed by the Combat
Organisation, will do away with the autocracy."
Everything that is outside the framework of terror is only the
setting for the struggle; at best, an auxiliary means. In the
blinding flash of exploding bombs, the contours of political parties
and the dividing lines of the class struggle disappear without a
And we hear the voice of that greatest of romantics and the best
practitioner of the new terrorism, Gershuni, urging his comrades to
"avoid a break with not only the ranks of the revolutionaries, but
even a break with the opposition parties in general."
The logic of terrorism
"Not instead of the masses, but together with them."
However, terrorism is too "absolute" a form of struggle to be
content with a limited and subordinate role in the party.
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.
"They see that it is impossible, given the nature of modern
armaments, for the popular masses to use pitchforks and cudgels -
those age-old weapons of the people - to destroy the Bastilles of
modern times," defence attorney Zhdanov said of the terrorists
during the trial of Kalyaev.
"After January 9 (the 'Bloody Sunday' massacre, which marked the
start of the 190S revolution), they saw very well what was involved;
and they answered the machine gun and rapid-firing rifle with the
revolver and the bomb; such are the barricades of the twentieth
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
by the "synthetic" theoreticians of the party, it always occupies a
special place of honour in fact. And the Combat Organisation, which
the official party hierarchy places under the Central Committee,
inevitably turns out to be above it, above the party and all its
work - until cruel fate places it under the police department.
And that is precisely why the collapse of the Combat Organisation as
a result of a police conspiracy inevitably means the political
collapse of the party as well.