May 26, 2024

    Leon Trotsky

    Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism

    (November 1911)

    Originally published in German in Der Kampf, November 1911.
    Originally transcribed for the Philisophy/History Archive, which is now the Philosophy Section of the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
    It was mirrored here with permission.
    Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan, November 2006.

    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 terrorist groups.

    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 form.

    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


    Originally transcribed for the Philosophy/History Archive, which is now the Philosophy Section of the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
    It was mirrored here with permission.
    Proofread by Einde O’Callaghan, November 2006.

    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 of society.

    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 city.

    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 trace.

    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 1905 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 century.”

    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.