Revolutionary terror, also referred to as revolutionary terrorism or a reign of terror,[1] refers to the institutionalized application of force to counterrevolutionaries, particularly during the French Revolution from the years 1793 to 1795 (see the Reign of Terror).[2][3] The term "Communist terrorism" has also been used to describe the revolutionary terror, from the Red Terror in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) to the reign of the Khmer Rouge[4] and others. In contrast, "reactionary terror", often called White Terrors, has been used to subdue revolutions.[5]

Origins, evolution and history

The Drownings at Nantes, anonymous period painting

German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky traces the origins of revolutionary terror to the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.[6][7] Vladimir Lenin considered the Jacobin use of terror as a needed virtue and accepted the label Jacobin for his Bolsheviks.[8] However, this distinguished him from Marx.[8]

The deterministic view of history was used by Communist regimes to justify the use of terror.[9] Terrorism came to be used by communists, both the state and dissident groups, in both revolution and in consolidation of power.[10] The doctrines of anarchism, Marxism, Marxism–Leninism and Maoism have all spurred dissidents who have taken to terrorism.[11] Except for a brief period in 1848 and within the Czarist milieu, Marx did not advocate revolutionary terror,[12] feeling it would be counterproductive.[11] Communist leaders used the idea that terror could serve as the force which Marx said was the "midwife of revolution"[13] and after World War I communist groups continued to use it in attempts to overthrow governments.[11] For Mao Zedong, terrorism was an acceptable tool.[14]

After World War II, Marxist–Leninist groups seeking independence, like nationalists, concentrated on guerrilla warfare along with terrorism.[15] By the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was a change from wars of national liberation to contemporary terrorism.[16] For decades, terrorist groups tended to be closely linked to communist ideology, being the predominant category of terrorists in the 1970s and 1980s, but today they are in the minority.[17] Their decline is attributed to the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union.[18][19]

French historian Sophie Wahnich distinguishes between the revolutionary terror of the French Revolution and modern day Islamic terrorism and the September 11 attacks:

Revolutionary terror is not terrorism. To make a moral equivalence between the Revolution's year II and September 2001 is historical and philosophical nonsense[.] [...] The violence exercised on 11 September 2001 aimed neither at equality nor liberty. Nor did the preventive war announced by the president of the United States.[20][21]

Revolutionary violence in Marxism

In his article "The Victory of the Counter-Revolution in Vienna" in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (No. 136, 7 November 1848), Karl Marx wrote:

The purposeless massacres perpetrated since the June and October events, the tedious offering of sacrifices since February and March, the very cannibalism of the counterrevolution will convince the nations that there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror.[22]

In his biography of Joseph Stalin, Edvard Radzinsky, a Russian author of popular history books, noted that Stalin wrote a nota bene—"Terror is the quickest way to new society"—beside the above passage in a book by Karl Kautsky.[23][24]

Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and other leading Bolshevik ideologists viewed mass terror as a necessary weapon during the dictatorship of proletariat and the resulting class struggle. In his The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade K. Kautsky (1918), Lenin wrote: "One cannot hide the fact that dictatorship presupposes and implies a "condition", one so disagreeable to renegades [such as Kautsky], of revolutionary violence of one class against another ... the "fundamental feature" of the concept of dictatorship of the proletariat is revolutionary violence".

The Bolsheviks engaged in a form of social determinism that was hostile to bourgeoisie and wealthier classes. Martin Latsis, one of the Soviet leaders directing the Cheka, stated his intentions for those classes who were considered reactionary and incapable of being reeducated. Latsis wrote:

We are engaged in exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. You need not prove that this or that man acted against the interests of the Soviet power. The first thing you have to ask an arrested person is: To what class does he belong, where does he come from, what kind of education did he have, what is his occupation? These questions are to decide the fate of the accused. That is the quintessence of the Red Terror.[25]

On the other hand, they opposed individual terror, which has been used earlier by the People's Will organization. According to Trotsky: "The damaging of machines by workers, for example, is terrorism in this strict sense of the word. The killing of an employer, a threat to set fire to a factory or a death threat to its owner, an assassination attempt, with revolver in hand, against a government minister—all these are terrorist acts in the full and authentic sense. However, anyone who has an idea of the true nature of international Social Democracy ought to know that it has always opposed this kind of terrorism and does so in the most irreconcilable way".[26]


Main article: Reign of Terror

The French Revolution began in 1789, but by 1793 the new government began to search for new means to defend itself. The Sans-Culottes had demanded government action against enemies and the remains of the Old Regime, spanning from the General Maximum (which guaranteed the price of staple commodities) to the execution of several dozen prisoners.[27] The murder of the radical republican writer Jean-Paul Marat in July of 1793 in his own bath intensified the situation.The Jacobin Government adopted policies of Terror in the most dire days of the civil and foreign wars against the Revolution: September, 1793. French Historian Albert Soboul writes: "On 5 September the Terror was made official policy."[28] For the rest of that September more laws were made that targeted counterrevolutionaries, and granted and enforced the demands of the Sans-Culottes. The next year was dominated by the hunt for and execution or imprisonment of enemies the Revolution, the Jacobins,and France. Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, justified the violence by saying: “Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is the thunderbolt not destined to strike the heads of the proud?”[29]

Despite the efforts to subdue the enemies of the Revolution, the situation continued to deteriorate until the Law of 22 Prairial, Year II (June 10, 1794) was enacted intensifying state-violence at home and beginning what is refereed to by historians as the "Great Terror." 1,376 people were killed by July 26, 1794.[30] However, the French victory at the Battle of Fleurus (June 1794) had all but secured the Revolution's safety from imminent foreign invasion and gave the Revolutionaries room to breath and reassess the domestic situation. This led to the conservative backlash in late July 1794 (called Thermidor for the month it was according to the Revolutionary Calendar) and the fall of the Jacobin Government with the execution of Robespierre (July 28, 1794).[citation needed]

This Terror became the model for other Revolutionaries.[citation needed]

Soviet Union

Execution of the Romanov family in 1918, Le Petit Journal

Red Terror

Main article: Red Terror

Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Bolshevik ideologists promulgated mass terror as a necessary weapon during the dictatorship of proletariat and the resulting class struggle. Similarly, in his book Terrorism and Communism (1920), Trotsky emphasized that "the historical tenacity of the bourgeoisie is colossal [...] We are forced to tear off this class and chop it away. The Red Terror is a weapon used against a class that, despite being doomed to destruction, does not want to perish".[31]

Many later Marxists, in particular Karl Kautsky, criticized Bolshevik leaders for terrorism tactics. He stated that "among the phenomena for which Bolshevism has been responsible, Terrorism, which begins with the abolition of every form of freedom of the Press, and ends in a system of wholesale execution, is certainly the most striking and the most repellent of all".[32] Kautsky argued that that Red Terror represented a variety of terrorism because it was indiscriminate, intended to frighten the civilian population and included taking and executing hostages.

The Red Terror (1917-1920) opposed the forces of the White Armies who wanted to reverse the Russian Revolution. It saw the encouraging of peasant seizure of land, the discovery of foreign agents, and the rooting out of old Czarist officials. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, but academic estimates range from 50,000-140,000.[33]

State terror in the Soviet Union

Main articles: Collectivization in the Soviet Union, Great Purge, and Population transfer in the Soviet Union

The Great Purge refers collectively to several related campaigns of political repression and persecution in the Soviet Union orchestrated by Joseph Stalin during the 1930s, which removed all of his remaining opposition from power.[34] It involved the purge of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the persecution of unaffiliated persons, both occurring within a period characterized by omnipresent police surveillance, widespread suspicion of "saboteurs", imprisonment and killings. In the Western World, this was referred to as "the Great Terror".[citation needed]


Main articles: Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, Land Reform Movement, and Cultural Revolution

During the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had encouraged and overseen the execution and imprisonment of landlords by their former tenants in the countryside. Upon the Kuomintang's retreat to Taiwan, Mao Zedong and the other leaders of the CCP oversaw a terror in line with their Marxist-Leninist principles. According to the official statistics from the People's Daily of the CCP Central Committee in 1954, at least 1.3 million people were imprisoned in the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries in 1950–1953, and 712 thousand people were executed.[35] The tactics of the Terror was also used by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. Mao encouraged this by telling his followers to "Bombard the Headquarters" to remove bureaucrats from power.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (2011). "revolutionary terrorism". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 7 April 2011.
  2. ^ "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy", by Barrington Moore, Edward Friedman, James C. Scott (1993) ISBN 0-8070-5073-3, p.101: "Social Consequences of Revolutionary Terror"
  3. ^ French revolutionary terror was a gross exaggeration, say Lafayette experts. By Chandni Navalkha. April 28, 2008. accessed 5-20-2009
  4. ^ BOOK REVIEW Exposition of revolutionary terror. The Gate, by Francois Bizot. Jul 4, 2003. accessed 5-20-2009
  5. ^ Zafirovski, Milan; Rodeheaver, Daniel G. (2014). Modernity and Terrorism: From Anti-Modernity to Modern Global Terror. Haymarket Books. p. 107. ISBN 978-1608463817.
  6. ^ Karl Kautsky (1919). "Revolution and Terror". Terrorism and Communism. Kautsky said: "It is, in fact, a widely spread idea that Terrorism belongs to the very essence of revolution, and that whoever wants a revolution must somehow come to some sort of terms with terrorism. As proof of this assertion, over and over again the great French Revolution has been cited." (Translated by W.H. Kerridge)
  7. ^ The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  8. ^ a b Schwab, Gail M., and John R. Jeanneney, The French Revolution of 1789 and its impact, p. 277-278, Greenwood Publishing Group 1995
  9. ^ Chaliand, Gérard and Arnaud Blin, The history of terrorism: from antiquity to al Qaeda By, p. 105, University of California Press, 2007
  10. ^ Martin, Gus, Essentials of Terrorism: Concepts and Controversies, p. 32, Sage 2007
  11. ^ a b c Lutz, James M. and Brenda J. Lutz Global terrorism, p. 134, Taylor & Francis 2008
  12. ^ McLellan, David, The thought of Karl Marx: an introduction, p. 229, MacMillan
  13. ^ Valentino, Benjamin A. (8 January 2004). Final solutions: mass killing and genocide in the twentieth century. Cornell University Press. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-8014-3965-0.
  14. ^ Martin, Gus, Essentials of Terrorism: Concepts and Controversies, p. 52, Sage 2007
  15. ^ Chaliand,Gérard and Arnaud Blin, The history of terrorism: from antiquity to al Qaeda By, p. 97, University of California Press, 2007
  16. ^ Chaliand,Gérard and Arnaud Blin, The history of terrorism: from antiquity to al Qaeda By, p. 98, University of California Press, 2007
  17. ^ Chaliand, Gérard and Arnaud Blin, The history of terrorism: from antiquity to al Qaeda By , p. 6, University of California Press, 2007
  18. ^ Wills, David C., The first war on terrorism: counter-terrorism policy during the Reagan administration, p. 219, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
  19. ^ Crozier, Brian, Political victory: the elusive prize of military wars, p. 203, Transaction Publishers, 2005
  20. ^ Wahnich, Sophie (2016). In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (Reprint ed.). Verso. p. 108. ISBN 978-1784782023.
  21. ^ Scurr, Ruth (August 17, 2012). "In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution by Sophie Wahnich – review". The Guardian. Retrieved August 3, 2017.
  22. ^ Karl Marx – Friedrich Engels – Werke, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, Vol. V, 1959, pp. 455-7. [1][permanent dead link]; for English translation see [2]
  23. ^ Edvard Radzinsky Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia's Secret Archives, Anchor, (1997) ISBN 0-385-47954-9
  24. ^ Karl Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism (1919), Ch. V. The book is item F558 O3 D90, one of two books on terror from Stalin's private library, seen by Edvard Radzinsky (Stalin, 1996, pp. 150, 569).
  25. ^ Martin Latsis, "Krasnij Terror," newspaper, October 1, 1918. Quoted in Hitler, Joachim C. Fest, New York: NY, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974, p. 91
  26. ^ Leon Trotsky (November 1911). "Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism".
  27. ^ Sonenscher, Michael (2018-05-15). Sans-Culottes. Princeton University Press. pp. 3–5. ISBN 978-0-691-18080-9.
  28. ^ Soboul, Albert (1977). A Short History of the French Revolution 1789-1799. Berkeley Los Angeles London: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS. pp. 93–95.
  29. ^ History, Alpha (2015-05-25). "Robespierre on virtue and terror (1794)". French Revolution. Retrieved 2023-10-26.
  30. ^ Lefebvre, Georges (1964). The French Revolution From 1793-1799. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 124–125.
  31. ^ "Black book of Communism", page 749
  32. ^ Karl Kautsky, Terrorism and Communism Chapter VIII, The Communists at Work, The Terror
  33. ^ Bailey Stone, The Anatomy of Revolution Revisited: A Comparative Analysis of England, France, and Russia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 335.
  34. ^ Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe. By Robert Gellately. 2007. Knopf. 720 pages ISBN 1-4000-4005-1
  35. ^ "新中国成立初期大镇反:乱世用重典(8)--文史--人民网". People's Daily. Archived from the original on 2020-06-15. Retrieved 2020-02-17.