By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
Over the years, terrorism has emerged as a political tactic to bring about radical change all over the world. Instead of the ballot box or street protests, it uses violence to coerce. It’s a means to an end. It has come to be considered a revolutionary strategy, employed by members of a group formed for a radical purpose.
Perhaps the best place to start considering terrorism to be revolutionary is with the Italian patriot Carlo Pisacane, who argued the importance of what he called propaganda by deed. Pisacane contended that ideas result from deeds instead of the other way around.
The violence he argued, was an essential tool that could generate publicity for a political cause. Inspired by the 1848 revolution in the Italian states, which was part of a broader revolutionary wave sweeping Europe, Pisacane devoted himself to unifying the fractious Italian states though he died before realizing his goal.
Russian Revolutionaries Taking To Terrorism
The Russian revolutionary group Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will, became among the first to put Pisacane’s ideas into action. About two-dozen men and women constituting the People’s Will executive committee decided to embrace more drastic measures. They decided to assassinate the Russian tsar, Alexander II to wrest political reforms from the government or provoke a rebellion among the people.
The assassination of the Russian tsar sent shock waves around the world. Even in the world’s oldest constitutional country, some subjects of the British crown felt as politically helpless as the subjects of the Russian tsar.
In 1801, the British Parliament created the United Kingdom by joining Great Britain and Ireland under the Act of Union. But the British treated Ireland and its Catholic majority as subordinates. This asymmetry in political power led to the formation of revolutionary groups with the goal of creating an independent Irish republic. One of the most active of these was the Fenian Brotherhood led by Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
Violence, he believed, would amplify the Irish revolutionary message, making it heard. With their violent attacks, they unleashed a state of fear, attracting publicity and disrupting the British economy.
Terrorism in Europe and America
In summer 1881, an anarchist conference convened in London where attendees publicly endorsed assassination as an appropriate method to achieve revolutionary change, including the recent attack against the Russian tsar. From this time forward, anarchists across Europe and the United States championed Pisacane’s notion of propaganda by deed.
Between 1892 and 1894, eleven bomb blasts in Paris killed nine people. In Spain, dozens died in dynamite explosions. And in the final decade of the century, terrorists killed the French president, Spanish prime minister, and the Empress Elizabeth of Austria-Hungary. Other prominent targets who survived included King Umberto of Italy and the German kaiser.
At the end of the 19th century, Armenian nationalist groups used terrorism to strike against Ottoman rule. And in the early 20th century, the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, on behalf of the radical group the Black Hand, was designed to liberate Bosnia and Serbia from the Austrian Empire. It also launched World War I, with the unintended consequence of bringing a temporary halt to revolutionary terrorism in central Europe.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Terrorism as a Tool to Claim Freedom
Even in the Irish dispute with Britain, the struggle shifted away from terrorist attacks toward a guerrilla war that ultimately led to the 1921 division of Ireland between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Some revolutionary nationalists actually gained self-determination and independence as a result of the war’s eventual settlement under the Treaty of Versailles.
Others as diverse as Israel, Kenya, Cyprus, and Algeria gained independence in the years that followed at least in part thanks to “nationalist political movements that employed terrorism against colonial powers”, according to Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Meanwhile in Palestine, following a series of attacks, thousands of new recruits joined Palestinian organizations, and Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberal Organization (PLO) gained some international legitimacy that had previously escaped them.
In 1974, the United Nations General Assembly invited Arafat to address the body, and soon it granted the PLO special observer status. Before the decade closed, PLO had diplomatic relations with more countries than Israel did. Even without a formal state, the Palestinians had proven themselves to be a significant factor in geopolitics.
When some UN member countries took steps to condemn the Munich Olympic Games attack and organize measures to prevent future terrorism, they encountered pushback from a number of Asian and African countries.
These states, almost all outside the industrialized West, contended that people who struggled under the yoke of foreign oppression had the right to use any method at their disposal to secure their freedom. Should all peaceful avenues to achieve liberation be denied them, violent methods, they argued, including terrorism, were justified.
The horror with which many in the West had greeted the Palestinian attack against Israeli athletes was countered with sympathy in other parts of the where the West was resented. People there understood how systemic repression could incite desperate violence.
The Power of Terrorism
Terrorism seemed to offer an opportunity to invert the paradigms of power. We have since come to realize how powerful terrorism as a revolutionary methodology is in many other parts of the world.
Although it has rarely achieved its revolutionary aims, terrorism has changed the modern world. It has transformed geopolitical considerations. It has provoked and persisted in decades-long wars.
Sometimes, it has compelled global superpowers to disengage from areas previously considered strategically essential. And it has succeeded in forcing established democracies to consider sacrificing certain civil liberties for greater security. In this way, terrorism has proven to be an effective revolutionary strategy or tactic. And because of this, it is a continuing presence in the contemporary world.
Common Questions about Terrorism as a Tool for Freedom
Terrorism seems to offer an opportunity to invert the paradigms of power. It has succeeded in forcing established democracies to consider sacrificing certain civil liberties for greater security.
The states outside the industrialized West contended that people who struggled under the yoke of foreign oppression had the right to use any method at their disposal to secure their freedom.
Carlo Pisacane argued the importance of what he called propaganda by deed. The violence he argued, was an essential tool that could generate publicity for a political cause.