Marxism and terrorism


Contrary to the popular image of Communists as bloodthirsty types, itching to be gets the bombs and machine guns out, we have always seen the kind of actions that, according to George Bush anyway, now seemingly get a special war thrown at them. Terrorism and Communism, despite the title of book of exactly that text by a famous renegade from Marxism, Karl Kautsky, did most certainly not go hand in hand. 
Just as in every generation, Communists have faced some nutter or other who thinks the short cut to solving problems is the proverbial black gunpowder ball with a fizzing fuse, the founding fathers of Marxism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had their very own case of it.
13th December 1867, a group of Irish revolutionaries attempted to free some of their leaders from Clerkenwell Prison with a bomb. The attempt was a fiasco and the bomb only destroyed a number of neighbouring houses, killing a few people and wounding hundreds. The British press used the occasion for a campaign of anti-Irish hysteria. As far as Marx and Engels were concerned, brave though the Irish Terrorists were, their actions had set back the cause of Ireland decades. Engels wrote to Marx that day from Manchester:
“The Clerkenwell folly was obviously the work of a few special fanatics; it is the misfortune of all conspiracies that they lead to such acts of folly because ‘we really must do something, we really must get up to something’. Especially in America there has been a lot of bluster amongst this explosive and incendiary fraternity, and then along come some individual jackasses and instigate this kind of nonsense.
Marx wrote back from London the next day:
“Dear Fred,
The London masses, who have shown much sympathy for Ireland, will be enraged by it and driven into the arms of the government … One cannot expect the London proletarians to let themselves be blown up for the benefit of … secret, melodramatic conspiracies of this kind (which) are, in general, more or less doomed to failure.” [Marx-Engels Correspondence 1867; MECW Volume 42, p. 501]
Four decades later, in Russia, the a autocratic monarchy, resistant to any social change, Marxists once again pondered the phenomenon. Long before the conclusion of the Russian Revolution, Lenin had outlined his ideas of Terrorism, which he completely rejected as a means of achieving revolutionary transformation. In a 1902 article for the underground paper, Iskra, entitled “Revolutionary Adventurism” he wrote:
“Each time a hero engages in single combat, this arouses in us all a spirit of struggle and courage,” we are told. But we know from the past and see in the present that 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 short-lived sensation, while indirectly it even leads to apathy and passive waiting for the next bout. We are further assured that “every flash of terrorism lights up the mind,” which, unfortunately, we have not noticed to be the case with the terrorism-preaching party of the Socialist-Revolutionaries. [Collected Works Vol 6 pp 186-207]
In `What is to be Done’, Lenin mused over the extraordinary commonality of opinion of a supporter of trade union spontanaiety as a strategy for revolution and a supposedly Marxist inclined revolutionary who argued for terrorism as a way forward. (Lenin called those who had subservience to spontaneity” `Economists’.) He thought Economists and Terrorists “showed themselves to be accidentally in agreement. Speaking generally, however, there is not an accidental, but a necessary, inherent connection between the two”.
Lenin realised his readers might think he had gone bonkers, so he rushed to explain. It was their impact on political struggle and activity that was in common. At first sight, his assertion seemed paradoxical, so great is the difference between those who stress the “drab everyday struggle” and those who call for the most self sacrificing struggle of individuals.
But there is no paradox. Economists and Terrorists merely bow to different poles of spontaneity; the Economists to the spontaneity of struggle and Terrorists bow to the “spontaneity of the passionate indignation” of individuals who lack the ability or opportunity to connect the revolutionary struggle and the working-class movement into an integral whole. It is difficult indeed for those who have lost their belief, or who have never believed, that such an integration is possible, to find some outlet for their indignation and revolutionary energy other than terror.
By 1906, Lenin hardly bothered to state his case, against terrorism and the rest, as they say, is history: “the acts of individuals isolated from the masses, which demoralise the workers, repel wide strata of the population, disorganise the movement and injure the revolution”. [`Collected Works, Vol 11 pp 213-223]