On Terrorism

January 4, 2023

In Uncategorized

On Terrorism (Jan 3, 2023)


Amidst the first Russian Revolution of 1905, several Tsarist officials were assassinated.  Rosa Luxemburg, who clandestinely entered Russia in order to participate in the revolution, delivered a nuanced verdict on such political assassinations.  They were morally justified as they responded to popular outrage, and were politically justified at certain junctures to revive sagging popular morale. But in general terror was not a substitute for collective action; more often than not it undercut mass, collective resistance by inducing spectator-like passivity; and ultimately it was politically impotent.  Earlier on she had observed that “throwing a bomb is about as dangerous to the government as killing a gnat.”  The primary, overarching objective of revolutionary socialists, Rosa believed, was the education and organization of the masses: for the premise and promise of socialism was that “the emancipation of the working class must be won by the working class itself.” (The quote is from Marx, which Rosa often cited.) The triumph of socialism would be signaled by the self-organization of the toiling masses, their transformation from passive to active agents of their fate and destiny.  The notion of a self-proclaimed radical sect liberating the working class from without was thus wholly alien to the Marxist revolutionary tradition.  It’s worth pausing at Rosa’s analysis as the “woke” left revels in the legacy of “armed struggle” by the Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, and Black Panthers, while it dismisses and denigrates the mass nonviolent resistance of the Civil Rights Movement.[1]  Even by the exacting standard of the heroic, revolutionary age in which she lived, Rosa was second to none in her personal fearlessness.  “You know,” she once wrote an intimate, “that I really hope to die at my post, in a street fight, or in prison.”  In fact, she passed most of World War I immured behind prison walls and, after her release (she emerged shockingly worn and frail), was tortured and then murdered by rightwing death squads on January 15, 1919, while leading the abortive German Revolution. She refused any special dispensations so as to face the identical fate as those whom she exhorted into battle.  A witness to her martyrdom later recalled, “I shall never forget how they knocked the poor woman down and dragged her around.”  Her body was dumped into the ocean and was washed up five months later.  In the meanwhile, the “revolutionary” icons of today’s woke left ended up teaching at elite law schools (Kathleen Cleaver), far-right Republicans marketing macho slacks equipped with faux-dicks (Eldridge Cleaver), publishing cookbooks (Bobby Seale), and groveling lickspittles blowing kisses from afar to Obama (Bill Ayers).  Of course, woke leftists have no intention of launching terrorist attacks.  It’s “all posing and posturing and … theatrical gestures” (to borrow a phrase from Rosa) by self-promoting entrepreneurs cashing in on their “intersectional oppression,” or privileged elites on Martha’s Vineyard induced by ennui to playing revolutionary.  Woke poster child Angela Davis recently remarked that she learns her radical feminism from gobbledygook woke “philosopher” Judith Butler.  Dare it be posited by this cis-gender white male that Rosa’s is a rather more inspiring example?  Herewith excerpts from Rosa on “Terror” (February 1905):


Every upstanding and right-thinking person is bound to feel moral gratification at this deed of liberation, the assassination of Grand Duke Sergei…. People now breathe more easily and the air seems cleaner after one of the most repulsive beasts of the absolutist regime has come to such a fitting end, being put to death out on the street as a mad dog would be. These feelings are so natural for any decent civilized person that universally in our press and virtually on everyone’s lips the deed in Moscow is perceived as an entirely moral act of vengeance, as retribution for crimes committed. However, the broader significance of this important development in the revolutionary battle in Russia is not exhausted by the entirely understandable feeling of moral gratification. A political judgment must be made that stands apart from one’s immediate impression and feelings about the most recent terrorist deed….
The actual terrorist movement … was born historically out of pessimism, from loss of faith in the possibility of a political mass movement and a genuine people’s revolution. Terror as a system was thought of naturally as a method to be carried out only by particular individuals from among the revolutionaries and directed against particular individual representatives of the absolutist regime. It essentially stood in opposition to the idea of a mass movement of the working class….
From this standpoint, and on this basis, [revolutionary socialism] has long since fought against the terrorist tactic … because it was bound to have more of a soporific and paralyzing effect. Rather than arousing action…, this method of vengeance by the terrorists invariably awakened vague hopes and expectations … that they could rely on the miracle-working invisible arms of the terrorist “avengers.” This clouded the clear understanding of the absolute necessity for, and the exceptionally decisive importance of, a mass movement among the people, a mass revolution of the proletariat….
It is not a question of either praising terror to the skies or condemning it, but of grasping its proper role and quite limited function … terror is and can only be a secondary episode in the struggle. And this is so in two respects, in terms of space and of time. In terms of space, it serves only as a single sword stroke, however brilliant and lightning-like, upon a huge battlefield where the proletarian mass struggle unfolds; and, in terms of time, it is bound and limited to a certain particular phase of the revolution by its very nature…. As a reply to the brutal efforts to drown the revolution in blood, the terrorist blows have a liberating impact on people’s spirits…. The avenging hand of the terrorist can here and there accelerate the disorganization and demoralization of [state repression]. But, with or without terrorism, only the massive arm of the revolutionary working class can put an end to absolutism in the tsarist empire and make freedom a reality.


[1] I discuss the exemplary case of GQ revolutionary Ibram X. Kendi in my forthcoming book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!