Revolutionaries on Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism
The concept of terrorism has evolved and changed over time. The period of the French Revolution from 1793-1794 was known as the "Reign of Terror." Under the leadership of the Committee of Public Safety, especially Robespierre and Danton, a military dictatorship was instituted, tens of thousands were arrested and thousands were executed. As Lenin observed, it was the French Revolution that marked the arrival of capitalist domination of the world.
Although Marx believed that revolution must be violent, he was not convinced that terror such as that of the French Revolution was a productive tactic. In a letter of 1870, he wrote to Engels, "... Reign of Terror. We think of this as the reign of people who inspire terror; on the contrary, it is the reign of people who are themselves terrified. Terror consists mostly of useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people in order to reassure themselves. I am convinced that the blame for the Reign of Terror in 1793 lies almost exclusively with the over-nervous bourgeois, demeaning himself as a patriot, the small petty bourgeois beside themselves with fright and the mob of riff-raff who know how to profit from the terror."
Lenin distinguished terrorism (by which he meant "violence") during a mass uprising from the adventurist "individual terrorism" that did not have mass support.
Prior to the mass uprisings of 1905, Lenin saw no value in individual terrorism. Writing in What Is To Be Done in 1902, he ridiculed those who had called for "excitative terror" and "agrarian terror" by using the peasant expression that they were "spitting into the well." Later, however, in A Militant Agreement for Uprising, he supported a very different form of terrorism which was linked to the mass uprising of 1905: "Heroism has now come out into the open; the true heroes of our time are now the revolutionaries who lead the popular masses, which are rising against their oppressors...."
Lenin continued to ridicule individual terrorism years later after the success of the Russian Revolution. In a 1918 newspaper interview, he said: "The assassination of Volodarsky, organised by the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, really reveals the weakness of the counter-revolutionaries. The history of the Russian revolution shows that a party always resorts to individual terror when it does not enjoy the support of the masses."
But there is a deeper problem with socialist terrorism that Lenin did not confront. Terrorism requires the tactics of the culture of war, including violence, secrecy and authoritarian structure and if a revolution is carried out by these means, the new socialist society becomes a socialist culture of war which, in the long run, cannot succeed in competition with the capitalist culture of war.
The concept of terrorism changed in the mid-20th Century when militaries began bombing civilian targets from airplanes. Picasso's painting of Guernika recalls one of the first such terrorist bombings carried out by fascists in Spain. Soon thereafter came the Nazis bombing of London, then the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden and other cities in Germany and Italy. And by far the most extreme case of terrorism against civilian populations, the American nuclear attack on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Terrorism remains an essential part of the capitalist culture of war. A particularly dramatic example was in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was accompanied by massive bombing of Baghdad called "Shock and Awe" by the American authorities because they intended it to terrorize not only soldiers but also the common people of Baghdad.
Terrorism is rarely confined to only one side of a war. The terrorism of Al Quaeda in the bombings of American embassies in Africa, and later the World Trade Center in New York, was answered by American bombing in Afghanistan. And the "Shock and Awe" bombings by the United States have been answered by more and more terrorist attacks on US troops and their supporters in Iraq.
In recent years, in the face of terrorism on all sides, one hears a few revolutionary voices for a culture of peace. One such voice is that of the great revolutionary, Fidel Castro. Speaking at the United Nations two weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, he said, "Terror has always been an instrument of the worst enemies of Mankind bent on suppressing and crushing the peoplesí struggle for freedom. It can never be the instrument of a truly noble and just cause."
Fidel continued: "All throughout history, almost every action intended to attain national independence, including that of the American people, was carried out with the use of weapons and nobody ever questioned, or would question, that right. But, the deliberate use of weapons to kill innocent people must be definitely condemned and eradicated for it is as unworthy and inhuman as it is repulsive, the same as the historic terrorism perpetrated by the oppressing states. In the present crisis, real possibilities still exist to eradicate terrorism without a war but the main obstacle is that the most notable political and military leaders in the United States refuse to listen to any word said against the use of weapons and in favor of a truly effective solution to the worrisome problem..."
Fidel's analysis builds on the base laid earlier by Marx and Lenin. Like them, he condemns terrorism which is directed against innocent people, while he defends revolutionary violence, which is directed against oppressive regimes and their forces.
As we enter the 21st Century, should we not go even further and develop a revolutionary strategy based on a culture of peace and non-violence?