We are publishing here two articles by Trotsky putting the socialist case against terrorism which are of great relevance today, with an introduction, What Socialists Say about Terrorism, by Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party, written following the September 11 suicide attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Building in the USA in 2001. (From The Socialist, 5 October, 2001).
Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism, by Leon Trotsky, first appeared in Der Kampf ("Struggle"), the theoretical monthly of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, which at that time claimed to base itself on Marxism.
The second article, The Bankruptcy of Terrorism, also by Leon Trotsky, first appeared in the Polish social democratic paper, "Przeglad Socyaldemokratylczny", in May 1909.
In addition we publish an excerpt from "Marxism Opposes Individual Terrorism" by Peter Taaffe, which relates the fundamental ideas dealt with in Trotsky's articles to the rise of terrorism in the 1970’s, and was first printed in the British "Militant," paper of the Militant tendency, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, in November 1975.
For an introduction to Trotsky's life, go to the British Socialist Party's magazine Socialism Today, issue 49.
The False Methods of Terrorism
What Socialists Say about Terrorism
The Socialist has been forthright in its condemnation of those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We described their methods as those of "small groups employing mass terrorism".
At the same time, we have not given any support to George Bush or Tony Blair, who call for a "war against terrorism", yet support state terror against defenceless and innocent people in the neo-colonial world.
However, our approach is not shared by all, even amongst other socialist groups. Some are equivocal or refuse to ‘condemn’ these attacks. This attitude is profoundly mistaken and risks alienating the majority of working class people, driving them into the arms of Blair and Bush and their ‘war’ preparations. Moreover, it flies in the face of a long-held principled opposition of socialists to these methods.
Historically, Marxism has always been opposed to terrorist methods. In 1938 Leon Trotsky, summing up the attitude of Bolshevism, stated:
"All Marxists in Russia began in the historic fight against terrorism".
Trotsky pointed out that under the one thousand years old Tsarist dictatorship in Russia,
"The first reaction of the youth was revenge, assassination of ministers, and we [the Socialists and Marxists, the Bolsheviks] told them: ‘Not that [terrorist methods] is our revenge, not the assassination of ministers, but the assassination of Tsarism, the order of tyranny’".
And this was in a country where the rise of the working class movement and their parties – Bolsheviks and Mensheviks – confronted two great parties, the Narodnya Volya (the Will of the People), and the Social Revolutionaries, who based their tactics upon terror. These methods could hold sway over a layer of young people; intellectuals, individual workers and peasants only so long as the organised working class movement did not develop and had not yet fully appeared on the political scene.
The 1905 Russian Revolution, with the entry onto the scene of the masses, particularly the working class, pushed these methods into the background. But the revolution’s defeat in 1907 once more saw the rise of terrorist methods.
This was a reaction to the murder, torture and imprisonment by the Tsarist state machine. Even then, the Bolsheviks implacably opposed terrorist methods. Trotsky compared individual terrorism to "liberals with bombs". This appears strange to us today.
Yet a liberal believes that a fundamental change can be secured by partial measures. The replacement of a minister or even a government is sufficient to bring about change. Similarly, terrorists believe that by the assassination or bombing of an individual representative, or even a group, of imperialism or capitalism, this system can be ‘destabilised’ or even defeated.
However, the capitalists will always find sufficient replacements for those removed by the actions of terrorists. This is why socialists and Marxists counterpose to these methods mass action, mass meetings, demonstrations and strikes, including the general strike, to defeat the bosses and abolish capitalism.
Consequently, the activity of socialists and Marxists, and the labour movement in general, is to help to make working class people conscious of their immense latent power. They are the strongest potential force in society, and Marxists emphasise that mass action is the key to social and political change.
The terrorist, notwithstanding their intentions, actually lowers the consciousness of the working class in its own strength and its ability to fight. They reinforce the idea that working class people are passive in the face of the power of imperialism and capitalism.
They must wait for the ‘great liberator’, small conspiratorial groups, to act for them in the struggle for emancipation. For the Palestinian people, in the past the guerrillas based outside the country, in the rest of the Arab world and internationally, were seen as their future liberators. However, the 1980s’ defeat in the Lebanon and the evacuation of the Palestinian fighters following the Israeli occupation of that country dashed this hope.
This led to a feeling amongst the Palestinians on the West Bank, in Gaza and within Israel itself that ‘we must do it ourselves’. This in turn led to the first intifada and the more recent and bloody second intifada.
This movement essentially is a mass movement with an armed wing. It is true that groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad have mistakenly resorted to the method of the ‘suicide bomber’ against Israeli forces. When employed in Israel it has struck down ordinary Israelis.
These methods, we understand, are born out of the terrible suffering of the Palestinians as well as the closing off by the Israeli state of other legitimate means of struggle and protest. It has, however, been counterproductive, both in terms of the increased killings and suffering of the Palestinian masses and the excuse this gives to the Israeli ruling class to carry through further repression.
In the past, even though their methods were wrong, the terrorists were often cast in a heroic mould. They were prepared to sacrifice their lives by eliminating individual representatives of capitalism – the army general, the minister, the chief of police, etc – without killing the innocent. Modern 'terrorism’ – although ultimately it emanates from and is nourished by social, national, religious or ethnic oppression – is different in character.
Even in the 1970s and the 1980s, when terrorism was prominent, those who used terror often tended to do so indiscriminately. The car bomb, the planting of bombs in buildings, the suicide bomber, often resulted in the death, not of the ‘oppressors’ or their state forces, the symbols of their rule, etc., but of innocents too.
Marxists criticised terrorism because it is counterproductive to its professed aims of weakening ‘the enemy’, in the case of the US attacks, US imperialism. On the contrary, it is invariably used to strengthen the rule of capital, to reinforce its state power and hence its ability to pursue ‘state terrorism’.
The capitalists have the excuse to attack or encroach upon civil and democratic liberties. Most of all, these methods tend to drive the working class into the arms, politically, of the bosses and their representatives.
Witness the attempts of the Bush administration, with the cover provided by the bloodletting, to attack civil liberties – the holding of legal immigrants indefinitely, increased powers for wire tapping, etc., the militarisation of US society, armed guards on planes, the presence on troops on the streets, the mobilisation of reservists, etc.
The fact that there is considerable and growing resistance to the attempts to hastily push through these measures in the US Congress by the Bush administration is testimony to the determination of the American people not to be panicked into accepting patently anti-democratic measures under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’.
But Bush enjoys the highest ratings of any president in history, 92%, compared to 50% prior to 11 September. The attacks have achieved the seemingly impossible: to make Bush – a "corporation disguised as a human being" – popular, at least temporarily.
Furthermore, US capitalism has managed to bring under its ‘coalition’ umbrella, in a series of concentric circles, regimes and forces hostile to US imperialism until recently, e.g. Iran, Hezbollah in the Lebanon, etc. This itself is an indication of the effect in scale and the character of the terrorist attacks in the US.
It was of a different order to anything that we have seen in the past. In Northern Ireland, for instance, in 30 years of the Troubles, about half the number were killed as perished in the attacks on one day in the US. In one US firm, 1500 children lost a parent.
Therefore, it is an understatement to describe this as ‘individual terrorism’, aimed at one specific target. These were the actions of a small conspiratorial group; allegedly bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda organisation, or those allied to it, which perpetrated an act of mass terror, not just against the 7,000 that were killed but against the US population as a whole. In its wake, the mass of the population are terrorised and terrified that it could be repeated; even that ‘bioterrorists’ could act.
At one stage, while condemning ‘individual terrorism’, Trotsky did use the phrase of "mass terrorism" by the working class. This could not in any way be equated with the methods employed by the group, which ‘bombed’ the WTC and the Pentagon.
Trotsky was describing the necessary measures of the democratic workers’ state in Russia in 1917-23, using defensive measures needed to safeguard the revolution against the ‘White Terror’ of the dispossessed landlords, capitalists and their foreign capitalist backers.
Marxists today would not use such terminology, any more than we would use Karl Marx’s "dictatorship of the proletariat" because it can be link socialism in the minds of workers to dictatorship, as with Stalinism. Marx’s idea can be better and more popularly explained by the call for socialism and workers’ democracy.
Unbelievably, there are some socialists who refuse to ‘condemn’ the US terrorist outrage. One such organisation is the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. A circular to Socialist Alliance members from leading SWP members, John Rees and Rob Hoveman, in answer to a statement by a Socialist Alliance member that did condemn the attacks stated:
It is nonsense on stilts to argue that condemnation of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington will strengthen Blair and Bush. On the contrary, not to do so can drive infuriated workers into the arms of the capitalists.
The muddled thinking elaborated here falls into the very trap, which Rees and Hoveman purport to avoid, of bolstering support for the capitalists. The Socialist has made it absolutely clear that our criticisms of the actions in the US are entirely different in content and character to the hypocritical speeches of Bush and Blair when they attack ‘terrorism’.
They, and their predecessors, have pursued mass terrorism, against the Iraqi people, the Serbs. They have been complicit and silent when Israel invaded the Lebanon in 1982 with the death of 17,000 people.
Moreover, Blair and Bush do not say a word about the 30,000 who were slaughtered because of the murderous gangs of Nicaraguan contras who were supported and financed by US imperialism. Nor do they have any comment about the 120,000 killed in Algeria – many of them victims of the state terror of the Algerian government.
We unreservedly condemn the organised, systematic state terrorism of the capitalists. But this does not release us as socialists and Marxists from a duty also to criticise and show implacable opposition to the actions of terrorist groups that play into the hands of the ruling class.
This the Socialist Party in England and Wales, and particularly our sister party has consistently done in Northern Ireland, in Spain towards the actions of ETA, in Latin America in the 1970s and in many other situations. Unfortunately, the SWP and other alleged ‘Marxist’ organisations have not done this. There is, therefore, a certain consistency in their present stance. Indeed, they have sometimes been uncritical cheerleaders for the methods and policies of terrorist groups.
We recognise that the terrorist methods of a group from an oppressed people have different causes and origins and intentions than those of the ruling class. Even a capitalist writer such as Daniel Warner from the International Studies Institute in Geneva can write in the International Herald Tribune:
In other words, it is in the social, national and the religious situation, that we must look for the causes of terrorism. It is true that the origins of the Al-Qaeda organisation, the social base from which it grew, as well as those involved in the hijackings and killings in the US, are different from other terrorist organisations. Bin Laden himself is from a rich Saudi family, which came originally from the south of the country on the borders of Yemen.
Osama bin Laden
Asir was the last part of the region to be conquered by the Saudi royal family and did not come under its control until the early 1930s. This area remained a wild backwater of unruly tribes for the next 50 years. Asir is just north of Yemen where Osama bin Laden has his family roots. Others, part of the al-Qaeda network who have been identified as hijackers, came from middle class families, and even from the elite, in Egypt and other Arab countries.
Moreover, the Saudi regime gave support and sustenance, both to bin Laden and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, "thereby spawning a baby that turned into a monster" [Robert Fisk, The Independent, and 26 September].
It was the head of the Saudi secret service, Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, who promoted bin Laden and the Taliban in an attempt to create a counterweight to the Shia tribes in Afghanistan supported by Iran. Moreover, the particular form of Islam of bin Laden and the Saudis, Wahhabism, is a ‘pure’ form of Islam, first preached in the 18th century by Abdul Wahhab.
This treats all who do not adhere to its doctrines, including other Moslems, as aspostates or unbelievers, and thereby as candidates for extermination. But now, bin Laden has turned against his Saudi masters, amongst other reasons because of the capitulation of the Saudi monarchy to US imperialism in its stationing of troops on its soil, which also contains the two holy shrines of Islam, Medina and Mecca.
There is nothing radical or anti-capitalist about the religious obscurantist ideas of bin Laden or the al-Qaeda organisation. Capitalist commentators are bemused as to why educated, technically skilled people can resort to suicide bombing.
They seem such a contrast to many of the impoverished Palestinian young people who have blown themselves up in attacks on Israel and have little formal education. The Tamil Tigers suicide soldiers and bombers came, in the main, from the most oppressed Tamil layers.
Even Hezbollah bombers, more deeply versed, it seems, in the Koran, were older and had been steeled by years of imprisonment. In the case of the US hijackers, "Our profile of the suicide bomber never included pilots, highly educated people" [International Herald Tribune, 17 September].
But this is not the first time in history when suicide bombers, some from a privileged background, have killed themselves in the act of inflicting a blow on ‘the enemy’. In the 19th century this was often the preferred method of those struggling against national oppression. There is also, of course, the example of the Kamikaze suicide bombers from Japan.
The causes, the immediate trigger for such methods can seem to be obscure but are rooted ultimately in the objective conditions of a country or region. The age-old oppression by imperialism is keenly felt by all layers of the Arab world, including those in the middle class, upper middle class and even those coming from a capitalist background.
The barbaric treatment of the Palestinian masses by the Israeli ruling class, with the silence and therefore connivance, of the Bush regime, which backs Israel to the tune of $3 billion a year, enormously inflamed Arab public opinion in the run-up to 11 September.
Indeed, in June of this year the heir to the Saudi throne, Crown Prince Abdullah, warned that the US hands off approach was encouraging Israel to crush the intifada of the Palestinians. He called off a visit to the White House. Egypt and Jordan warned the US of an outburst of popular anger throughout the Arab world.
Despite the apparently privileged background and lifestyle of the hijackers, this mood in the Arab world could not fail to communicate itself to them as it has done to Arab intellectuals as a whole. Therefore, the actions of the hijackers, notwithstanding the right-wing obscurantist programme of bin Laden, are ultimately grounded in the feeling of intense oppression of the Arab people as a whole.
"War against terrorism"
Consequently, US imperialism’s ‘war against terrorism’ cannot succeed in the long run so long as the conditions that have bred terrorism remain. The fact that these methods are used is also a reflection of the weakness of Marxism and the organised working class movement. This is partly because of the dramatic shift to the right of the ex-social democrats who head the ex-workers’ organisations.
It is necessary to understand the causes of terrorism. But in no way does this mean that socialists and Marxists should take a shadow of responsibility for the methods that they use, which ultimately play into the hands of the capitalists.
Moreover, this does not for one minute reinforce the position of Bush and Blair, mistakenly argued by the leaders of the SWP, in preparing for or prosecuting a war against terrorism.
On the contrary, failure to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks will precisely reinforce the position of imperialism and its war preparations. It wishes to picture opponents of any war as either pacifists, dewy-eyed liberals, idealists or as closet sympathisers of the terrorists.
A refusal to condemn the actions of the perpetrators of the attacks will play right into their hands. It could prevent socialists from approaching and discussing with, and hopefully convincing, workers who are horrified at what happened in New York and Washington.
They are fearful that they could be the next victims of a terrorist outrage. Many of these are not bloodthirsty ‘warmongers’ but will go along with arguments for a ‘war against terrorism’ unless a viable alternative is put forward.
The Socialist Party and its supporters are not pacifists. We will defend the democratic rights of the working class (the right to strike, freedom of assembly, a free press, etc.) from attacks, no matter what quarter it comes from – with all legitimate political means at our disposal. In the event of the capitalists seeking to take these away by force – as they did in Chile, supported by Kissinger we have to remember– we would be prepared to fight to defend such rights.
The worldwide ‘war against terrorism’ of Bush, Blair, etc. will undoubtedly seek to paint all opponents of capitalism, the anti-globalisation anti-capitalist activist – also as ‘terrorists’. Berlusconi, the right-wing prime minister of Italy, has done precisely this in the last week, equating the demonstrators at Genoa with the US terrorists.
They will attempt to equate terrorist methods with working class organisations’ right to defend themselves from the attacks of the capitalists, including state attacks, neo-fascist and right-wing attacks, etc.
No matter how well intentioned, equivocation in condemning terrorist methods will play into the hands of the capitalists. The Socialist Party, The Socialist, and their supporters will combat the false methods of those who perpetrated the New York outrage and counterpose to this the ideas of mass struggle, of education, propaganda and agitation to rid the world of capitalism and terrorism by fighting for and establishing socialism.
29 September 2001
The material in this publication was selected from "Marxism Opposes Individual Terrorism" - A Militant Publication, with a new Introduction from The Socialist, 5 October 2001