Duncan Hallas & Jim Higgins

Marxism and Terrorism

(March 1972)

Duncan Hallas & Jim Higgins, Marxism and Terrorism, IS Internal Bulletin, March 1972.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Individual terrorism is in its very essence bureaucratism turned inside out. For marxists this law was not discovered yesterday. Bureaucratism has no confidence in the masses. Terrorism works in the same manner; it seeks to make the masses happy without asking their participation.”

“Running like a red thread through my 37 years of revolutionary and literary activity is my irreconcilable attitude towards the adventurism of individual terrorism”
(Both quoted from The Kirov Assasination, 1934)


At the EC meeting of 6.3.72, a division of opinion arose about the line of the editorial No Substitute for Mass Action in Socialist Worker of March 4th. A resolution endorsing the general line of this editorial was carried, although the vote did not reflect adequately the division on the committee. It is no doubt the case that the differences on the E.C. reflect similar differences amongst the membership and that the matter needs to be discussed in the organisation. This contribution explains the position of the E.C. majority.

What the Dispute is About

Objection was taken to one sentence in the editorial, namely ‘The extension of that self defense (i.e., by the IRA of the Catholic community) into killing of individual politicians and the bombing of buildings cannot be supported by socialists,’ Naturally this statement has to be considered in its context – the whole line of the editorial – and that is summed up in the conclusion ‘Indiscriminate terrorism hinders the growth of the mass movement.’

The Marxist Tradition

This question has a very long history in the movement. It was one of the issues in dispute between marxists and anarchists in the last century. In Russia the marxist movement developed in the course of a systematic struggle against the advocates (and practitioners) of terrorism as a method of struggle (the Narodniks),

The Narodnik terrorists had a record of heroism, self-sacrifice and indeed success in the sense of successful ‘executions’, that was and is second to none. They could and did accuse the marxists of avoiding the ‘real struggle’ in favour of ‘handing out leaflets outside factories,’ of being arm-chair theorists (‘dogmatists’ was the favourite term).

The Russian marxists, Plekhanov, Lenin and the rest, spent a considerable part of their early political activity, in patiently but firmly (‘dogmatically’ if you like) arguing against terrorism. The core of their case was summed up very simply by Trotsky:

“Is individual terror, for example, permissible or impermissible from the point of ‘pure morals’? In this abstract form the question does not exist at all for us. Conservative Swiss bourgeois even now render official praise to the terrorist William Tell. Our sympathises are fully on the side of Irish, Russian, Polish or Hindu terrorists in their struggle against national and political oppression ... However, not the question of subjective motives but that of objective expediency has for us the decisive significance. Are the given means really capable of leading to the goal? In relation to individual terror both theory and practice bear witness that such is not the case, To the terrorist we say: It is impossible to replace the masses; only in a mass movement can you find expedient expression for your heroism.” (Their Morals and Ours, 1938)

All sides in the dispute would accept the above statement. It is the essential basis for the discussion. The question is whether or not certain of the activities of the Provisionals end the Officials constitute terrorism. It is common -round that many of their activities do not, As the editorial stated, ‘The violence used by both wings of the IRA is not, for the most part, terrorism in the proper sense of that term’. What is at issue is the attitude to the bombing campaign of the Provisionals and to the reprisal raids (e.g. Aldershot, the shooting of Taylor) of the Officials.

A State of Civil War?

The planting of bombs in factories, cafes, pubs and shops, a practice actively pursued by the Provisionals, is a classic example of terrorist tactics. So too is the shooting of particularly hated politicians like Taylor. If that was all that there was to it there could be no dispute. It is the clear duty of marxists to oppose such tactics and to attempt to influence supporters of these methods towards the building of a revolutionary working class organisation. But, it is argued, we have, in the six counties, a civil war – and the shootings and bombings have to be seen as part of that war.

If it is true that a state of civil war exists, then certainly the case would be entirely different. We would be dealing with military operations as in Vietnam. In these circumstances attacks on individuals, destruction of buildings and so on would be part of attempts to defeat the army by military means. Even in this case the expediency of indiscriminate bomb planting could questioned, However, the argument about terrorism would be irrelevant.

Is there a civil war? Some elements of civil war certainly exist. The mass of the Catholic population is completely alienated from the state and gives passive, and in some cases active support to guerrilla actions. Nevertheless it falls well short of the situation where military considerations are of first importance. The situation is a complicated one in which guerrilla attacks and civil disobedience on a large scale occur, whilst the majority of the working class – the Protestants – oppose the national struggle. The question is what is a socialist perspective in those circumstances.

The line of our organisation – which is the application of the theory of permanent revolution to Ireland – is that the overthrow of imperialism in Ireland – North or South) is impossible except on the basis of a mass movement with a revolutionary socialist leadership. Therefore the need is for the development of a revolutionary party which can struggle for the support of the working class on a thirty-two county basis. That is why we support the Socialist Workers Movement, In the six-counties the hold of the Orange-Tories on the majority of the workers cannot be broken until a sizeable working class organisation already exists on a thirty-two county basis, and is seen to be as hostile to the Green Tories as to the Orange ones. The activities of the two IRA’s have to be judged in the light of this perspective. It is interesting to note here that the NILP is wedded to the British LP and the imperial connexion, while the SDLP is tied to Lynch’s green tory coat-tails. For marxists the only present hope, small though it may be, is the SWM.

The defense of the Catholic community against governmental terrorism helps this development by challenging the power of the state and thus raising the possibility of its destruction. Defence, of course, includes the necessary measures against informers and agents of the state.

The bombing campaign hinders the development by strengthening the ties of the Orange workers to Stormont. And it deflects the Catholic working class militants by giving then a false perspective and activity.

Of course there are those who have, in practise, written off the Protestants i.e., the majority of the working class. For them ‘Victory to the IRA’ is all that is left. It leads, logically enough, to a new partition of the six counties and an implicit acceptance of the ‘Two Nations’ theory. It also leads to the postponement of any successful struggle against imperialism, in the north and the South, to the indefinite future. It is the counsel of despair.


‘Unconditional but critical support for all those, including both IRAs, fighting imperialism in Ireland. By unconditional we mean support regardless of our criticism of the leadership and tactics. By critical we mean opposing the sowing of illusions that the struggle can finally be won except by the victory of the working class fighting on a programme of social as well as national liberation’. (Socialist Worker editorial, 12th February).

Duncan Hallas   Jim Higgins


Last updated on 7.12.2004