When I decided to do a section on non-socialist politics, I never assumed the issue of terrorism would assume the importance that is has.
Before we can say whether socialists oppose terrorism, we have to be absolutely clear what terrorism is. When George W. Bush, or some other ruling class figure, denounce "terrorism", they are not denouncing the murder of innocent people - after all, Bush has done precisely that, on a much more massive scale in Afghanistan. The ruling class tries to paint all those who are against their agenda as being "terrorists", enemies of "law and order", and so on. As Bush himself put it, "Either you are with us [i.e. him and his government], or you are with the terrorists."
In the 1980s, the State Department labelled Nelson Mandela - who is today known as a freedom fighter - a "terrorist". The State Department also has a list of "states that sponsor terrorism", which includes Cuba, Syria, North Korea, Iran, Iraq (the notorious "axis of evil"), Libya, and perhaps a few others. The State Department never says which groups these states "sponsor", or how they "sponsor" them, and they never show evidence on either count. The accusation of terrorism from the ruling class is not only hypocritical (they are the real terrorists!), but it is smokescreen for their hidden agenda.
But there is a real phenomenon of terrorism, conducted by terrorist groups. When Marxists talk about terrorism, we mean violence conducted by a small group or individual on behalf of the masses. We are against terrorism of this sort for many reasons.
As socialists, we think that the motor of history is class struggle, action by the masses on their own behalf. The central idea of Marxism is that "the emancipation of the working class has to be the act of the working class itself." We don't think indivuduals or small groups, no matter how well-meaning they are or how shocking their violent acts, can substitute for the working class fighting for itself.
This kind of terrorism belittles the role the working class can and must play if capitalism is to be overthrown. It reduces them to being passive spectators, rather than active partipants, or, if you will, actors on the stage of world history.
Not only that, but terrorist acts - assassination of government officials, for example - strengthen the repressive machinery of the state. Every act of terrorism serves as a pre-text for new invasive laws, shortened court procedures, and a heavier hand in dealing with any opposition, terrorist or not. In this sense, terrorism is reactionary - it serves the enemies of the working class.
Today's terrorism is very different from terrorism in the early 20th century - or "classical terrorism". Terrorism used to consist of assasination, either by bombs or bullets, of government ministers, important officials, members of the upper class, and so on. Today, terrorists deliberately attack civilians, many of them working class, for one reason or another.
But our attitude towards terrorism, terrorist groups, and particular terrorist groups is not determined solely on the basis of who they target, it is based on what their goals are. For example, Hamas' suicide bombers kill Israeli workers, but we don't condemn them (see my "Notes on the Intifada"). The violence of the Palestinians, even when it is pointed at the wrong people, is violence resulting from occupation, oppression, and most of all, desperation. We do not condemn them for that. However, if pro-life terrorists blow up an abortion clinic, we condemn them, because they seek to strengthen the oppression of women by killing them, their doctors, and blowing up places where they could get medical treatment.
Another example: during Algeria's war of independence, Algerian terrorists detonated bombs in France, killing French workers. As socialists, we did not condemn the terrorists - we condemned French imperialism, firstly for the oppression of the Algerian people, and secondly for making French workers pay for it, either through taxes or with their lives. But we criticized the Algerian terrorists for attacking people they should be trying to win as their allies in their fight against French imperialism. After all, the same government that smashed strikes and held down workers' living standards is the same government that spent workers' tax money on bombs for Algeria. The French working class and the Algerian independence movement had a common interest in fighting (and defeating) the French government. Algeria's victory weakened the French capitalist class, and class struggle within France weakened the ability of the French capitalists to subjugate other people abroad.
Although a socialists' attitude to different terrorist groups depends on the historical context, it is important to understand that all terrorist groups share elitist politics that, put into practice, strengthen the state and weaken workers' belief in their own power.