Resolution on terrorism, terror and class violence
In the previous issue of the International Review we published a text on terrorism, terror and class violence, which attempted to trace the basic orientation for the ICC’s intervention on this issue in its various publications. The text was a general response on the one hand to the ideological and police offensive of the bourgeoisie and on the other hand to the various conceptions currently defended in the revolutionary movement as a whole in the face of recent terrorist actions. The text we are publishing here in the form of a resolution underlines and deepens the different points developed in the previous text, with the constant preoccupation of more precisely defining the nature of the liberating, emancipatory violence of the proletariat.
The resolution doesn’t seek to give precise and detailed answers to all the concrete problems that are and will continue to be posed to the working class in the course of its revolutionary activity -- an activity that goes from the first reawakening of the class struggle to the period of revolutionary transformation, via the insurrection and the seizure of power. Neither does the resolution deal with the way the bourgeoisie directly uses terrorism. Its aim is to provide a framework, a general conception which will allow us to approach these problems from a proletarian standpoint which gets away from simplistic statements such as “violence is violence”, “violence is terror”, “to say that violence isn’t terror is pacifism”, etc -- the whole casuistry about “the end justifying the means” as the previous text points out. The aim of this resolution is to show:
-- that pacifism has no real existence, and can only be an ideology. At best it is the expression of intermediate social strata theorizing their own impotence, their inability to offer a real opposition to the bourgeoisie and its state; but it is always used by the bourgeoisie in the exercise of its domination over the working class and society as a whole;
-- that terror is the expression of ruling, exploiting classes; when the material basis of their rule begins to founder, their class violence becomes the crux of social life;
-- that terrorism is typical of the impotent revolt of intermediate social strata, never a method or detonator of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat;
-- that the form and content of the emancipatory violence of the working class can never be assimilated with ‘terror’;
-- finally, to show where the real strength of the working class resides: in the conscious, collective, organized strength of the immense majority of the class, in its capacity to undertake the revolutionary transformation of social relations.
Moreover, the text shows that if there is one area where the mutual relationship between ‘means and ends’ is particularly vital, it’s the area of the revolutionary violence of the proletariat. This implies that what is underlying the present discussion on terrorism, terror and class violence is the very nature of the proletarian revolution.
1. It is absolutely false to present this problem in terms of a dilemma between terror or pacifism: pacifism has never had any real existence in a society divided into classes and antagonistic interests.
In such a society, the relations between classes can only be regulated by struggle. Pacifism has never been anything except an ideology; in the best of cases, a mirage coming from the feeble, impotent ranks of a class with no future, the petty bourgeoisie; in the worst of cases, a mystification, a shameful lie put about by the ruling classes in order to divert the struggle of the exploited classes and make them accept the yoke of oppression. To reason in terms of terror or pacifism, to say that the alternative is between one or the other, is to fall into a trap and give substance to this false dilemma. It is the same with another trap built on an equally false dilemma: war or peace.
It is vital that our discussions avoid this false dilemma; by replacing reality with fantasy we would be turning our backs on the real problem that confronts us: the class nature of terror, terrorism and class violence.
2. Just as putting forward the false dilemma between terror and pacifism avoids the real problem, equating these different terms also glosses over the issue. In the first case the problem is evaded by replacing it with a false dilemma; in the second case the problem itself is denied and so appears to dwindle away. But it would be astonishing for Marxists to think that classes so different in nature as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat -- one the bearer of exploitation, the other the bearer of emancipation, one the bearer of repression, the other of liberation, one which stands for the maintenance and perpetuation of the divisions in humanity, the other for its unification in a human community, one representing the reign of necessity, scarcity and poverty, the other the reign of freedom, abundance, the flowering of man – that these two classes could have the same way of behaving, the same methods of acting.
By establishing this identification you can avoid everything that distinguishes and opposes these two classes, not in the clouds of abstract speculation, but in the reality of their practice. By equating their practices you end up establishing an identity between the subjects themselves, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It would be an aberration to say on the one hand that we are dealing with two classes by essence diametrically opposed to each other, while on the other hand maintaining that these two classes have in reality an identical practice.
3. To get to the heart of the question of terror, we have to leave aside quarrels about words, in order to uncover what lies behind the words. In other words, the content and practice of terror and what it means. We must begin by rejecting the idea that there can be any separation between content and practice. Marxism rejects both the idealist vision of an ethereal content existing outside material reality, and the pragmatic vision of a practice devoid of content. Content and practice, ends and means, without being identical, are nevertheless moments in an indissoluble unity. There can be no practice distinct from or opposed to its content, and you can’t question a content without ipso facto questioning its practice. Practice necessarily reveals its content, while the latter can only express itself in practice. This is particularly evident at the level of social life.
4. Capitalism is the last society in history to be divided into classes. The capitalist class bases its rule on the economic exploitation of the working class. In order to ensure this exploitation and intensify it as far as it can, the capitalist class, like all exploiting classes in history, resorts to all the means of coercion, oppression and repression at its disposal. It does not hesitate to use the most inhuman, savage and bloody methods to guarantee and perpetuate exploitation. The more it is confronted with internal difficulties, the more the workers resist exploitation, the more bloodily the bourgeoisie exerts its repression. It has developed a whole arsenal of repressive methods: prisons, deportations, murder, concentration camps, genocidal wars, and the most refined forms of torture. It has also, of necessity, created various bodies specialized in carrying all this out: police; gendarmes, armies, juridical bodies, qualified torturers, commandos and paramilitary gangs. The capitalist class devotes an ever-growing part of the surplus value extracted from the exploitation of the working class in order to maintain this repressive apparatus; this has reached the point where this sector has become the most important and flourishing field of social activity. In order to defend its class rule, the capitalist class is in the process of leading society to ruin and threatening the whole of humanity with suffering and death.
We are not trying to paint an emotional picture of capitalist barbarism; it is a prosaic description of its actual practice.
This practice, which impregnates the whole of social life and all relations between human beings, which penetrates into the pores of society, this practice, this system of domination, we call -- terror. Terror is not this or that episodic, circumstantial act of violence. Terror is a particular mode of violence, inherent to exploiting classes. It is concentrated, organized, specialized violence, planned, developed and perfected with the aim of perpetuating exploitation.
Its principal characteristics are:
a. being the violence of a minority class against the great majority of society;
b. perpetuating and perfecting itself to the point of becoming its own raison d’être;
c. requiring a specialized body which always becomes more specialized, more detached from society, closed in upon itself, escaping all control, brutally imposing its iron grip on the whole population and stifling any hint of criticism with the silence of death.
5. The proletariat is not the only class to feel the rigors of state terror. Terror is also imposed upon all the petty bourgeois classes and strata: peasants, artisans, small producers and shopkeepers, intellectuals and the liberal professions, scientists and students; it even extends itself into the ranks of the bourgeois class itself. These strata and classes do not put forward any historical alternative to capitalism; worn out and exasperated by the barbarism of the system and its terror, they can only oppose it with acts of despair: terrorism.
Although it can also be used by certain sectors of the bourgeoisie, terrorism is essentially the mode of action, the practice of desperate classes and strata who have no future. This is why this practice, which tries to be ‘heroic and exemplary’, is in fact nothing but an act of suicide. It offers no way forward and only has the result of supplying victims to the terror of the state. It has no positive effect on the class struggle of the proletariat and often acts as an obstacle to it, inasmuch as it gives rise to illusions among the workers that there can be some other way forward than the class struggle. This is why terrorism, the practice of the petty bourgeoisie, can be and often is exploited judiciously by the state as a way of derailing the workers from the terrain of the class struggle and as a pretext for strengthening the terror of the state.
What characterizes terrorism as a practice of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that it is the action of small, isolated minorities which never raises itself to the level of mass action. It is conducted in the shadows of little conspiracies, thus providing a favorite hunting ground for the underhand activities of agents of the police and the state and for all sorts of manipulations and intrigues. Terrorism begins as the emanation of individualistic wills, not as the generalized action of a revolutionary class; and it ends up on a purely individualistic level as well. Its actions are not directed against capitalist society and its institutions, but only against individuals who represent this society. It inevitably takes on the aspect of a settling of scores, of vengeance, of a vendetta, of person against person and not a revolutionary confrontation of class against class.
On a general level, terrorism turns its back on the revolution, which can only be the work of a definite class, which draws in the broad masses in an open and frontal struggle against the existing order and for the transformation of society. What’s more it is fundamentally substitutionist, placing its confidence only in the voluntarist action of small active minorities.
In this sense we have to reject the idea of a ‘workers’ terrorism’ which is presented as the work of detachments of the proletariat, ‘specialists’ in armed action, or which is supposed to prepare the ground for future battles by giving an example of violent struggle to the rest of the class, or by ‘weakening’ the capitalist state by ‘preliminary attacks’. The proletariat can delegate certain detachments for this or that immediate action (pickets, patrols, etc) but these are under the control of the movement as a whole; within the framework of this movement the resolute actions of the most advanced elements can serve to catalyze the struggle of the broad masses, but this can never be done through the conspiratorial and individualistic methods that characterize terrorism. Terrorism even when practiced by workers or groups of workers, cannot take on a proletarian character, just as the fact that the unions are made up of workers does not make them organs of the working class. However, terrorism should not be mixed up with acts of sabotage or individual violence perpetrated by workers at the point of production. Such acts are fundamentally expressions of discontent and despair, above all in periods of reflux, during which they can in no way act as detonators to the struggle; rather, in a period of resurgence, they tend to be integrated and transcended in a collective, more conscious movement.
For all these reasons, terrorism in the best sense of the term (in the worst it can be openly directed against the workers) can never be the mode of action of the proletariat; but the proletariat never puts it on the same level as terror, since it does not forget that terrorism, however futile its actions are, is a reaction, a consequence provoked by the terror of its mortal enemy, the capitalist state, and that it is also the victim of this terror.
Terrorism, as a practice, is a perfect reflection of its content: the petty bourgeois classes from which it emanates. It is the sterile practice of impotent classes who have no future.
6. The last exploited class in history, the proletariat carries within itself the solution to all the divisions, contradictions and impasses with which this society is burdened. This solution is not only a response to its own exploitation but applies to the whole of society, because the proletariat cannot liberate itself without liberating the whole of humanity from the division of society into classes and the exploitation of man by man. This solution, a freely associated and unified human community, is communism. From its birth the proletariat has carried within itself the germs of this community, it has personified certain characteristics of this reborn humanity: as a class deprived of all private property, as the most exploited class in society, it is opposed to all exploitation; as a class unified by capital in associated productive labor, it is the most homogeneous, unified class in society -- solidarity is one of its foremost qualities and is felt as the deepest of its needs; the most oppressed class, it fights against all oppressions; the most alienated class, it bears within itself the movement to end alienation, because its consciousness of reality is not subject to the self-mystification dictated by the interests of exploiting classes. Other classes are subject to the blind laws of the economy, whereas the proletariat, through its conscious action, will make itself master of production, suppress commodity exchange and consciously organize social life.
Although it will still bear the marks of the society it has emerged from, the proletariat will have to act with a view to the future. It can’t take the activity of previous ruling classes as a model for its own activity, because it is the categorical antithesis to these classes both in its being and in its practice. The rule of previous classes was motivated by the defense of their privileges; but the proletariat has no privilege to defend and it rules in order to suppress all privileges. For the same reasons, previous ruling classes shut themselves behind insuperable caste barriers, whereas the proletariat is open to the incorporation of all other members of society into itself, in order to create a single human community.
The struggle of the proletariat, like any social struggle, is necessarily violent, but the practice of its violence is as distinct from that of other classes as are its projects and its goals. Its practice, including the use of violence, is the action of huge masses, not of a minority; it is liberating, the midwife of a new harmonious society, not the perpetuation of a permanent state of war of one against all and all against one. Its practice does not aim to perfect and perpetuate violence, but to banish the crimes of the capitalist class and immobilize it. This is why the revolutionary violence of the proletariat can never take on the monstrous form of terror, which characterizes the rule of capital, or the form of the impotent terrorism of the petty bourgeoisie. Its invincible force resides not so much in its physical and military force, still less in repression, but in its capacity to mobilize the whole mass of the class and to integrate the majority of the non-proletarian laboring classes and strata into the struggle against capitalist barbarism. It resides in the development of its consciousness and its capacity to organize itself in a unified autonomous way, in the firmness of its convictions and the vigor of its decisions.
These are the fundamental weapons of the practice, the class violence of the proletariat.
Marxist literature sometimes uses the term terror instead of class violence. But when we look at the whole of the Marxist tradition we can see that this is more a matter of an imprecise formulation than a real identification of ideas. Moreover, this imprecision derives from the profound impression made by the great bourgeois revolution of 1789. But in any case it is high time to erase these ambiguities which lead certain groups, like the Bordigists, to make an extreme caricature of the exaltation of the Terror, turning this monstrosity into a new ideal for the proletariat.
The greatest firmness and the strictest vigilance don’t mean the setting up of a police regime. Although physical repression against the counter-revolutionary attempts of the bourgeoisie may prove indispensable, and even though there is a danger of the proletariat being too lenient or weak in the exertion of violence, it will have the same preoccupation as the Bolsheviks in the first years of the revolution, that is to guard against any excesses and abuses, which run the risk of distorting its own struggle and making it lose sight of its final goal. It is the more and more active participation of the broad masses, the development of their creative initiative, which alone can guarantee the power of the proletariat and the final triumph of socialism.