A trail of terror stretching 200 years

By John Gray. His book Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia is published by Penguin on July 5 (THE TIMES, 30/06/07):

At a time when Islamist terrorism seems to have returned to the centre of London, it is easy to forget that during the 20th century terror was used on a vast scale by secular regimes. Today suicide attacks are automatically linked with a belief in martyrdom followed by paradise in the afterlife. Yet suicide bombing of the kind we now confront is a terrorist technique that was developed by people with no such beliefs. Though they claim to reject all things modern and Western, Islamist terrorists are continuing a modern Western tradition of using systematic violence to transform society. The roots of contemporary terrorism are in radical Western ideology – especially Leninism – far more than religion.

Lenin saw himself as belonging in a European revolutionary tradition that began with the French Jacobins, whose use of terror he criticised only because he believed it was insufficiently merciless. For Lenin, as for Robespierre, terror was not just a means of defending the revolution against enemies but also an essential tool of social engineering.

Together with Trotsky, Lenin set up concentration camps, instituted a system of hostages to ensure obedience in suspect groups and executed about 200,000 people between 1917 and 1923. The Bolshevik leaders were clear that state terror was indispensably necessary for achieving a communist society in which the State – along with war, property, and religion – would no longer exist. It was Lenin and Trotsky, not Stalin, who pioneered state terror in Russia, and they did so in order to realise a vision of Utopia.

In this way the Bolshevik leaders were part of a long tradition, which continues today. In late 19th-century Russia there were the Nihilists – revolutionary intellectuals who believed spectacular acts of individual terror could shake the existing order to its foundations and help to inaugurate a new world. A seminal figure was Sergei Nechaev, author of Catechism of a Revolutionary (1869), in which he defended blackmail and murder as legitimate political strategies. We tend to think of a nihilist as someone who scorns all human ideals, but Nechaev and his like believed passionately in science, social progress and human goodness. In terms of revolutionary strategy they differed from Lenin, who condemned individual acts of terror as ineffective; it was highly organised state terror that he favoured. Yet Lenin and the Nihilists were at one in their faith that terror was necessary to advance Enlightenment ideals of human progress.

It might be thought that with the rise of Islamism, secular terrorism has died out. This is far from the truth. Suicide bombing may now be the Islamist technique of choice, but it was the Tamil Tigers – a Marxist-Leninist group that recruits mostly from Hindus in Sri Lanka, but which is militantly hostile to all forms of religion – that devised it. It was the Tamil Tigers that developed the explosive belt worn by Hamas and Islamic Jihad suicide bombers, and up to the Iraq war the Tigers had committed more such attacks than any other organisation.

The first wave of suicide attacks in Lebanon in the Eighties was also mainly the work of secular groups. Of 41 attacks between 1982 and 1986, including the attack in 1983 that killed more than 100 US Marines, 27 were carried out by members of leftist groups such as the Lebanese communist party and the Arab Socialist Union. Only eight were Islamists, and three were Christians (including a woman high school teacher).

Secular terrorism has had a formative influence on the threat we face at present. Islamist thinkers have taken from Lenin a modern faith that is not found in either traditional Islam or Christianity – the idea that through the systematic deployment of violence a new world, even a new humanity, can be brought into being. Medieval Europe was the site of almost continuous warfare and religious persecution, while Islam has been divided, sometimes violently, practically from the beginning. Even so, before modern times it was never imagined that the use of violence could initiate a perfect society, or rid the world of immemorial evils.

This is a nonsense that emerged only with the Jacobins, to be inherited by Marx and later exponents of the radical Utopian strand in Enlightenment thinking. It is hideously inhumane to torture and terrify people in order to save their souls, but to do so in order to establish universal freedom is supremely absurd.

Faith is dangerous, as evangelical atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens never cease reminding us. But fanaticism comes in many guises. We would do well to remember that it was secular faith that inspired much of the terror of the last century. The fantasy that society can be progressively transformed by violence inspired some of humanity’s worst crimes, and it casts a poisonous spell today.