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The Origins of Terrorism - By Jake Scott

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

What do we talk about when we talk about terrorism? The word is so overloaded with meaning we probably all have different ideas of what a terrorist may look like, no doubt informed by cultural and historical factors: in England, the image may once have been of an Irish Republican, though that has now evolved into one of either Islamic Fundamentalists or xenophobic Nationalists. But if we strip away the particular image of the individual responsible for the act, we likely have unifying markers of the act itself that we can reasonably call “terrorist”, at least in colloquial usage.

I would like to make a point here that philosophers are often wrapped in a cyclical problem: we need to study a phenomenon by looking at its representations to determine its contents; but how do we choose those representations without a prior model of determining the contents of those very representations? In other words, how do we know we are studying terrorism? Usually we can use the labour of the negative to determine the contents of a representation - we might think, for instance, that terrorism is deliberately targeting civilians (or “non-combatants”). But does that mean the Blitz in 1941 was a terrorist act? Some say yes, others say no. My point here is that terrorism is very often used as a marker of the existential edge of “politics”, of lying beyond the boundaries of behaviour constrained by reasonable and normal standards, capable of presenting a moment of radical negation that is able to constitute a community. But this usage can be fallacious. It might be useful to portray “terrorists” as being so alien to our social norms that they are not worth judging by the same moral standards, but this is a slip into relativism, and fails to appreciate that there are often overlapping markers between what is called terrorism, and what is not.

So, terrorism cannot simply be defined by the labour of the negative. What we can do is trace terrorism back, to its first explicit expressions, and try to understand it that way. This is what I shall try to do here.

The first cogent expression of terrorism as a political strategy emerged in the radical milieu of mid-19th century Russia. Russia had, following the experience of the Napoleonic Wars, experienced a headlong collision with the Western world, often highlighting the distinctions between those political and social developments that had taken place during the West in the Enlightenment, and Russia’s stagnant comparison. There was a radical challenging of the basis of social order, and a myriad of alternatives that were offered to Russia’s climate as it existed; one of which, famously, was socialism.

Socialism, at this time in history (and especially in Russia) was violently revolutionist. Those who called themselves socialists were convinced that the rot of developmental stagnation was so deep in Russia that the only possible recourse to solve it was revolution, though there was a proliferation on how best to achieve this. The apotheosis of this debate arose in the 1850s and 1860s, when a number of attempts to encourage revolution through agitation were frustrated through reformations higher up in society; the emancipation of the serfs was one such act, which freed (formally, it must be remembered) twenty-three million people from the bonds of serfdom. Following this emancipation was the ill-fated People’s Campaign by the narodniki, the self-proclaimed Populists of 1860s Russia, and though the phenomenon of the campaign deserves its own analysis (in a different article) it suffices here to recognise some simple truths. The People’s Campaign was intended to, in the words of the hundreds of bourgeois intellectuals who enacted it, ‘go to the people’ and agitate amongst the peasants for a furtherance of this new political freedom through violence.

The campaign was an unmitigated failure. The middle-class revolutionaries who had spontaneously dressed themselves in the peasant smock, grew their beards out, and gone to live amongst the peasants were often reported to the gendarmes or the local police, and on occasion attacked by the very peasants they were attempting to revolutionise. This might seem like an aside for a discussion on ‘terrorism’, but what matters are the consequences of this failure: whereas before, the revolutionary movements had grown from a distinct belief in the power of the Russian people to rise up in revolution - what had been known through the early nineteenth century as Slavophilism - now, the belief in the nascent revolutionary power of the peasants was jettisoned.

It had, however, to be replaced. The motivating force behind the revolution (and, it must be remembered, socialist ideology sees the revolution as inevitable, not accidental) had to be deduced from elsewhere. One group of revolutionaries moved in the vanguardist direction, which was inevitably that adopted by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries; another moved in the direction of terrorism.

The philosophy of terrorism developed was remarkably straight-forward. It did not entirely abandon the belief that a nascent revolutionary fervour existed in the people of Russia, but that it had to be ‘squeezed’ out, forced into such revolutionary action. The terrorist’s role was to create the conditions for such forced behaviour. This would be achieved by violent, discriminate killing of senior political and military officials (usually fused in the nobility), that would result in two related consequences: the first would be widespread panic.

The experience of the failed People’s Campaign revealed to the revolutionaries the scepticism they felt towards the establishment did not extend throughout the populace, due largely in part to the veneration of the Tsarist regime, but also because of its perceived indestructibility (a mythology that had persisted since the sixteenth century, but strengthened by the Napoleonic Wars). The perception of the Tsarist regime as being unshakeable could be shattered by the elimination of high-ranking officials, especially in a public manner. The panic would be felt through society, at both the public level, and the official level: the establishment would see its own mortality reflected in the assassination of an individual figure; and the people would see this mortality through the symbolism of such death.

The second consequence would be a crackdown on social freedom. The inevitable lack of knowledge about the terrorists on the part of the establishment would lead to an indiscriminate persecution of society, in order to prevent another such attack. What this would in turn lead to is a deepening mistrust of the establishment.

Why did the socialist revolutionaries think this would work? Aside from being intellectually and ideologically driven, the experience of the Peninsular War in the Napoleonic Wars showed the power of mass, spontaneous, uncoordinated violence directed to the occupying French-installed government. The guerrilla fighters (guerilla translating roughly to ‘little war’) were able to spread mass confusion amongst the bonapartistes to the extent that they attempted the very crackdown the revolutionaries desired.

A lot can be said for the efficacy of the terrorist’s beliefs. What matters is that the revolutionary ideology of terrorism spread throughout the Slavic world, and was the reason Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, as well as being a contributing factor to the formation of the Black Hand, the terrorist clique amongst whose members was Gavrilo Princep, who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. The development of terrorism since this time has undergone certain changes: for example, as well as the discriminate killing of high-ranking officials, terrorists now experiment with indiscriminate killing - partly a result of social development - but for much the same reason of spreading panic and fear.

Terrorism has persisted into the twenty-first century. It has many facets, and it may be hard to disentangle from the normative overloading we have given it since its emergence. What this piece has tried to do, is show the origins of the political strategy of terrorism, in order to help understand what exactly terrorists desire in their political acts, by tracing the emergence of political strategy in 1860s Russia, which in turn took inspiration from the Peninsula War.


Jake Scott is currently studying a PhD in Political Theory at the University of Birmingham

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