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International Socialism, March 1977


SWP Middle East Group

What We Mean by Terrorism


From International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, p.14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In the Notes of the Month in International Socialism 95 there appeared a piece on the Middle East with which we would like to take issue. For it is our view that the use of the term ‘terrorist’ to describe the strategy of the rejection forces, amongst the Palestinians was both casual and unconsidered.

In the context that it appeared it was not at all clear in what sense this highly emotive term was being used. As Trotsky says in his article On Terrorism,

‘Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining about our terrorism ... They would like to label all the activities of the proleteriat directed against the class enemy’s interests as terrorism.’ [1]

As then so today this term is used to describe almost all forms of armed struggle by the oppressed, by workers and in particular by such as the Palestinians.

When marxists use the term we mean those acts which take place isolated from the class struggle (or even are used as a substitute for it) which whilst

‘... very striking in outward appearance ... (are) ... absolutely harmless as far as the social system goes. Hence for us “terrorism” is not a term of high moral abuse to be used selectively to defend an oppressive world social system but a description of a political/strategic blind alley which we reject precisely because it "belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who someday will come and accomplish his mission".’

For the Palestinians armed struggle has been a central part of their attempt to recover their homeland from its Zionist occupiers for the last ten years. In periods of defeat for their movement a sharp division has often appeared between the ‘political’ and the military wings – the former reverting often to the field of diplomacy and the latter left without a lead from either the political, to whom they have almost become an embarrassment, or the orthodox military.

This shows itself by a tendency toward pure militarism by small groups in isolation from the mass organisations. We must argue against this slide into militarism not the least because it takes place as a substitute for challenging the Arafat (the ‘acceptors’) leadership and because it exposes many of the better elements to severe persecution.

Yet we must also understand it within the context for example of the recent Riyadh agreement (which was unfortunately glossed over in the same piece) which has given a license to all the Arab states to hunt down and crush the rejection forces and those associated with them. For in Egypt, Jordan, Syria rejectionists have been hung in the last few months, in Paris one of their leaders was assassinated in the streets and many others have simply disappeared in the Lebanon.

So when we use words such as ‘terrorist’ we must always do so in such a way that its precise meaning is clear and in particular that it is clear who’s side we are actually on. For many liberation movements at times or in part have fallen into what we would call terrorism, that is into individualistic acts that do not challenge the system, yet we stand on their side. We do not as has been traditional in the Trotskyist movement become abstentionists and so equate the violence of the oppressed with the violence of their oppressors. It is our principled support for such movements that we believe has earned us the right to make certain and sometimes deep criticisms of their politics and strategies.

Our message to those that have taken this blind alley must be that we oppose terroristic acts 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.’

Hence we are more ‘extreme’ than they not less.



1. All quotations in this letter came from the article Trotsky on Terrorism that appeared in International Socialism 62.


The comrades state very clearly the difference between the Marxist and the bourgeois uses of the word ‘terrorism’. We thought that it was quite clear, both from the context and from our record of consistent support for the Palestinian resistance and opposition to US imperialism and its allies in the Middle East, in particular the Zionist state, which sense we were using the word.

It appears that it was not clear and we are grateful to the comrades for spelling out how Marxists use the word ‘terrorism’ for any of our readers who may have misinterpreted us.

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