Strmiska, M. (2000). Political Radicalism, Subversion and Terrorist Violence in Democratic Systems. Středoevropské politické studie, 2(3). Získáno z
Political Radicalism, Subversion and Terrorist Violence

Political Radicalism, Subversion and Terrorist Violence

in Democratic Systems

Maxmilián Strmiska


The relation between the working of democratic systems today and the exploitation of ”modern” forms of politically motivated extreme violence, especially the different types of subversive terrorism, has been an object of thorough study and discussion at most varied levels in the course of recent decades, often with contradictory results. This is not a surprise bearing in mind the diversity of bases for such study and discussion, as well as the complexity and changing nature of the subject matter itself, and last but not least, also the deforming impact of different political factors which in many a case predetermined both the horizon of discussions and the character of ”politically correct” or at least acceptable conclusions. This does not apply just to decayed political and propagandist writings displaying a remarkable dose of cynicism and lack of shame in serving the interests of power which decided who would be labelled ”terrorist” or ”freedom fighter”, or else.  There is a number of scientific works defending the principles and values of democracy which also display apparent effort to a priori exclude raising a particular problem in full in order to prevent any doubt being cast on the purposefulness and justifiability of traditional approaches to and standpoints regarding the assessment of political violence and extremism. At the same time, polemics regarding terrorism had a large impact. Discussions about terrorism changed the way the public felt about both terrorism as a particular category of extremist violence, and politically motivated violence and extremism as such, propagating and reinforcing the view of political violence (acceptance of violent methods of political fight including terrorism) as an utterly undemocratic and anti-democratic behaviour and as a key characteristic of extremism. There is a growing tendency in substantial part of the public in democratic countries today to a priori associate manifestations of extremist orientation with acts of politically motivated violence, and to identify their actors, if not as covert perpetrators, at least as terrorists in spe. From this extremely simplifying perspective, clandestine terrorist organisations have become a prototype of genuine extremist formation, while terrorism has become a logical outcome of a ”systematically anti-system” orientation (cf. Strmiska 1998). In an environment nourishing such views, it has been extremely difficult to develop open, unbiased discussion about manifestations of radical opposition and anti-regime protest, about their causes and last but not least, about the consequences of their tolerance or suppression, in the long run.


The principle that the necessary prerequisite for a serious discussion about the above phenomenon is its definition, both positive and negative, applies to political terrorism more than to any other phenomenon (cf. Gurr 1988). Only this way the risk of intentional misinterpretation and instrumentation of the whole issue can be minimised.


Political terrorism can be defined as a politically motivated and justified method of using extreme violence whose primary purpose is to produce a particular psychological effect extending dramatically beyond the limited circle of its immediate casualties or witnesses, an act in which immediate physical extermination is but of minor relevance in view of its expected political impact (cf. Strmiska 1994; Strmiska 1995; Strmiska 1996). Political terrorism is typical for its communicative nature: individual acts of violence are linked with a political message that may often be, and is, differentiated depending on the target public (target groups). It can involve both intensive intimidation, terrorising some and encouraging others, i.e. potential partisans and imitators. Unlike other types of terrorism, political terrorism involves specific political motivation, and unlike other forms of political violence, it primarily uses extreme violence determining the nature of the intentionally produced psychological effect. The logic of political terrorism can therefore be defined as the logic of an extremely malign psychological war. Even though lacking perfection, this definition renders a number of stimuli for further thought – both for its contents and implications.  This is of certain relevance. Politically motivated approach to terrorism has been typical for its tendency to link, from the very beginning, the definition of terrorism with an explicit or at least implicit identification of the circle of its originators. Rather than trying to answer the question ”what is terrorism”, stress has been laid on the question ”who they are”. Research in this field has shown that except for particular cases potential perpetrators of political terrorism cannot be identified and that it is extremely difficult to a priori exclude particular social and political groups from the circle of potential terrorists or their allies (cf. Catanzaro 1990a; Catanzaro 1990b; Della Porta 1990; Gurr 1994). Under certain circumstances, terrorism as a way to achieve political objectives can be used by both socially and politically disadvantaged or marginalized groups, or by privileged sectors of society disposing of a number of efficient tools to pursue their interests. Political terrorism may well be a weapon to the weak, a desperate option, or an instrument used by a cynical elite in power to effectively achieve their goals. Terrorism may well be a tool for those trying to subvert a regime or those wishing to make it last and vigour. It is extremely difficult to set the probability rate of political terrorism occurrence in different political arrangements – except for the regime of terror – or to be sure that in certain political systems terrorism cannot occur or be exploited on principle (cf. Walter 1964; Walter 1969).


Events of recent decades have clearly shown that democratic political systems are not immune against subversive political terrorism. It has even been suggested that such systems are the best environment for the development of modern political terrorism. Such opinions are based on the premise that expansion of terrorist practices has been resulted from insufficient repressive capacity of democratic regimes today. The weak point of this argument consists in excessive simplification of the whole problem, which may be a direct way to a refined indirect rehabilitation of authoritarian regimes. On the other hand, it should be admitted that the above opinion has a rational core.  As a matter of fact, the assessment of potential repressive action is undoubtedly an important factor, and not the only one, in the assessment of potential gains and losses on the part of those who inspire terrorist campaigns. However, the growth of terrorism cannot be explained just indirectly saying that it was not suppressed on time. This brings about other, disquieting questions, too. First of all, the question could be raised whether modern liberal democratic systems create conditions for such interactions that are necessary for political terrorism – or at least some of its manifestations – to thrive. This moment should not be ignored in the study of terrorism: just saying that there are groups willing to take recourse, either occasionally or systematically, to terrorism, or that such groups or individuals have not been eliminated in due time, does not help to explain the cause of a more or less successful terrorist action, or its absence, in a particular case.


Viewing the problem on a general level, attention should be given to some basic characteristics of terrorism intrinsic to most of its types. On principle, terrorism is an unconventional method of fight that may – especially in early stages of evolution – find its best use where extreme violence is not ”on the agenda”. However, unconventional nature of terrorism does not only imply non-respecting the given rules or customs regulating the exploitation of violence and the thread of violence in a particular political and social system. As a matter of fact, the logic of terrorism involves non-respecting any conventions, which makes it work in the first place (cf. Bonanate 1979). Brutality of terrorist attacks as such is not as important as the fact of terrorist action evoking future cruelty that cannot be predicted or controlled by potential victims, i.e. extreme violence unlimited by any system of conventions. Paradoxically, various kinds of terrorism may appear extremely efficient non-conventional means to achieve political goals to certain groups in liberal democratic society with a low degree of tolerance towards violence.

The less conventional violence there is in a given system, the greater the chances for terror through unconventional violence. This has a natural impact on the assessment of gains and losses produced by terrorist action. However, the effect of terrorist action depends to a large extent on a well thought dosing of terror. As long as terror remains within the limits beyond which there is nothing but the reign of terror or the regime of terror, terrorist action is more likely to have the desired effect if  ”administered in doses” or gradually increased than too much terror at one time. Wrong dosing of terror may easily result in the target public compensating the horrible experience by a strongly negative attitude towards the communicator (i.e. the terrorists). In the case of selective terrorism – both in terms of potential victims and the different sectors of the target public – wrongly dosed terror focused on the effect of panic may have unexpected or even catastrophic consequences for the terrorists. Nevertheless, what has been said above also applies in this case: the chances of dosing and increasing terror produced by extreme violence are the best in systems where violence ”is not on the agenda”. This however does not exclude a growing risk of counterproductive terrorist practice in such environments.


In an open, pluralistic society, both perpetrators or their allies, and their adversaries have a relatively broad range of possibilities to communicate and distribute terrorist (as well as anti-terrorist) political message. With a growing number of political actors grows the number of potential ”users” of terrorist message. Past events have shown that terrorists themselves need not have a lion’s share in manipulating this message that can be subsequently made use of by different political actors to achieve their own goals. In the case of political terrorism, acts of violence committed may not necessarily be of the greatest benefit to the perpetrators themselves. This allows for raising the question of direct and especially indirect co-responsibility for mediating the effect of terrorist action, which applies to both political actors and the sphere of mass media.


The analysis of terrorist violence in democratic systems requires a certain degree of differentiation for which at least elementary typology of political terrorisms existing in the above social and political environment is necessary. In this context, we should briefly mention the problem of differentiating subversive (anti-government) and repressive and/or enforcement (pro-government) terrorism (cf. Thornton 1964; Wilkinson 1974 etc.), as well as the question of differentiation of the above types of terrorism, and especially its subversive variant.


As far as ”national”, local terrorist phenomena are concerned, manifestations of subversive terrorism of ultra-left, ultra-right or other (ethnical and political, religious and political) origin have won attracted most attention.[1] For some researchers and institutions the phenomenon of political terrorism has always been limited to subversive terrorism, an approach usually based on a wrong, nevertheless relatively wide spread belief that other than subversive terrorism simply does not exist.


There have been specific reasons for giving special attention given to either extreme left or extreme right terrorist groups in this context. In these cases it was comparatively easy to prove that both the means used by such groups and the political goal they were employed for, i.e. destabilising and eliminating democracy and replacing it for a different regime, were anti-democratic. In the case of other types of terrorist violence, the latter dimension may not be so apparent, while in the former usually inspires little doubt.


Sub-revolutionary terrorism is the best-known variant of subversive terrorism, sometimes also called agitational (stimulating) terrorism (cf. Thornton 1964; Wilkinson 1974). Rather than immediate obtaining power, it is focused on ”armed propaganda” to show potential allies that armed fighting the regime is possible, desirable and efficient. The main intention is to prepare, by means of  a destabilising psychological war, grounds for a civil war (revolution, mass uprising) that would result in the overthrow of the regime  and its substitution for another (revolutionary) system. The activities of Italian Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse) and the German Red Army Fraction (RAF), each to a different extent throughout the different phases of their existence, and of course other  groups active in the 1970s and 1980s in Western Europe, were, as a matter of fact, based on the logic of sub-revolutionary terrorism.


The sources of inspiration to sub-revolutionary terrorism of ultra-left provenience have been of heterogeneous nature. They include anarchist ”propaganda through action”, doctrines of different revolutionary groups (the Blanquists, the Narodnics, etc.) of the 19th century, theories and experience of anti-colonial (both rural and urban) guerrillas and terrorist action, as well as some elements of Leninism and Maoism, etc. Nevertheless, the ideological platform of the Italian BR, the German RAF or other ”classic” groups of ultra left sub- revolutionary terrorism include only few new elements of real importance as compared with the original examples which mostly date to the 19th century. As a matter of fact, the only new moment of major importance was adopting the concept of long term, protracted civil war, a concept of Maoist origin. While sub-revolutionary terrorism had been traditionally viewed as temporary, short-term and rather tactical means in the past, the new concept made it  privileged strategic and tactical means of fighting on a relatively long-term basis.  This shift in the concept of sub-revolutionary terrorism (and in related concepts of ”urban guerrillas”) has brought unexpected, nevertheless predictable and logical effects to its bearers – in the first place a culmination of brutality and related negative psychological side effects that sooner or later, but inevitably, resulted in degeneration of such terrorist and political actors. It is worth mentioning the fact that in the 1970s radical fractions of protest movements in some of the European countries (especially in Italy and to a lesser extent in France, Germany and other countries) adhered to the belief that only violence can assure the credibility of revolutionary and in fact any radical political projects, which had an immediate effect on the expansion of sub-revolutionary terrorism based on a platform that involved different elements of nihilism (Guicciardi 1988; Stajano 1982). The doctrine of such formations like the Italian Front Line (PL) perceived policy as a bluff, a hypocrite game, a useless and misleading superstructure while war was glorified as the only natural and logical relation ”between the exploited and the exploiters.” This was no longer an effort to ”merge politics and war”, as was the case with groups like the Brigate Rosse. It was minimising or actual abolition of any political dimension to terrorist war. The fact that violence was played down in this specific kind of terrorism is therefore little surprising (cf. Guicciardi 1988).


Terrorist organisations coming from the extreme right pole of the political spectrum have been given considerably less attention than their ultra-left counterparts until the early 1990s. Nevertheless, it is the ultra-right variant of terrorism that is of great interest to the study of terrorist violence mainly because it displays a number of features typical of terrorism in its ”pure” form. In the case of classical neo-fascist terrorism the ”positive” educational effect, typical of ultra left agitational terrorism of ”exemplary gestures”, is usually suppressed. The desire to punish the adversaries in the course of the fight for power (not waiting until later, when victory is achieved) is limited in this case to the most primitive objective of ”teaching a lesson” to the largest target public possible, while it is not the punishment or well justified revenge what matters but the demonstration of power and cruelty. Even though neo-fascist sub-revolutionary terrorism, especially in its initial phase, displays similar characteristics to ultra-left agitational terrorism, these characteristics are integrated into a different context. Its logic and dynamism are different – and most direct in terms of maximising the terrorist effect. The approach towards the target public usually lacks specific differentiation, so that the scope and intensity of the psychological effect is underlined on account of its orientation, and even an explicit political justification may be surprisingly simple or – as has often been the case – inexistent.  Terrorism of this kind is generally typical for a trend towards progressive diminishing the degree of selectivity and the corresponding trend towards diffusive communication of terror and its subsequent totalising.


The most spectacular and more or less macro-terrorist violence in terms of mediated psychological effect is not the only manifestation of subversive terrorism. There are other, less conspicuous types of micro-terrorism, which also belong to this category, limited to minor or occasional acts of sabotage and intimidating campaigns of a lesser intensity, or terrorist attacks on a local scale.


Manifestations of ethnical and political terrorism, personalised by factions of ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna) or IRA (Irish Republican Army) in Western European environment, represent a special category (cf. Byman 1998). This type of terrorist violence often resembles, in different phases of its evolution, to sub-revolutionary terrorism. In such cases, it is rather the ethnic conflict that plays the crucial role and prevails, in a long-term perspective, over purely ideological motifs and elements. The manifestations of ethnical and political terrorism are not necessarily and explicitly anti-democratic (at least as far as their purpose goes, not mentioning the means they use), and the question of its clear and justified self-definition against democracy as a model of political arrangement or the preference for such model may be of secondary relevance for them. The character of ethnical and political terrorism is determined in the first place by the existence of ethnic (or ethnic and religious) cleavage and the way and degree of its political exploitation (cf. Barša, Strmiska 1999). Relatively simple negative self-definitions based on this cleavage accelerate and boost brutalisation of ethnic conflicts, including the exploitation of terrorist violence.


The assessment of repressive, pro-government terrorism in democratic systems is a complex issue. ”Pro-democratic” terrorism, or terrorism beneficial for democracy, is absurd. However, is the idea of pro-government undemocratic but not primarily antidemocratic terrorism or ”counter-terrorism” employed to reinforce the authority of state in moments of crisis and to increase the ”efficiency” of repressive function of the democratic regime equally absurd? Similar types of terrorist violence - often derived from the tradition of vigilantism (cf. Rosenbaum, Sederberg 1974) -  employed by state or non-state actors have been recorded in modern democratic systems. Terrorism employed directly by state authorities (state terrorism) is excluded in a democratic regime under normal circumstances. The question is, however, whether it is excluded under any, i.e. also abnormal circumstances. In this context, the facts pointed out by E. V. Walter should be born in mind, first of all the fact that in every state there are preserved the basic conditions necessary for outburst of terror: armed forces – potential means of violence and terrorism on the one hand, and population capable of feeling terror, on the other. Walter also point out that attention should be given not just to the actual but also to the potential terrorism which can materialise if the population or its part starts to behave in an ”undesirable” way (Walter 1964; Walter 1969). The conversion of armed forces into an apparatus of terrorism would however be a clear sign of the birth of a regime of terror (or at least zones of terror) and at the same time of erosion or total destruction of the respective liberal democratic system. Therefore we can say that most probably even exceptional, temporary and limited used of state repressive terrorism would have a self-exterminating impact on a democratic system.


”Deviated” elements of state repressive apparatus that got out of control of control have become the bearers of politically motivated terrorism in some democratic and semi-democratic regimes of recent times. It would be inadequate to speak of state terrorism in such cases. Similar phenomena should rather be considered as repressive terrorism of non-governmental (”parallel”) groups with which they often intertwine (cf. Rosenbaum, Sederberg 1974). The representatives of such type of terrorist violence usually focus on the protection of the jeopardised  (as they feel it) power and political status quo by extending and reinforcing the repressive function of the state they consider insufficient for their own ”parallel” terrorist action. The impact of such ”antiterrorist terrorism” is very limited and rather than suppressing extreme violence has a catalysing effect on the intensity and brutality of the conflict. Their hidden support and stimulation finally proves counterproductive as they are sooner or later scandalised, to the detriment of the respective democratic or pseudo-democratic system. In addition, leaving apart the problem of secondary subversive aspects of ”reinforcing” repressive terrorism, there is always a risk that what was originally pro-government terror shall eventually become a primarily subversive sort of terrorism.


Subversive terrorism has undoubtedly been one of the possible manifestations of anti-regime orientation and in a way expresses radical negation of procedural ”democratic” consensus, which is not equally true of other forms of violent collective action relatively often recurred to on a mass basis by different protest movements and groups. A number of studies done, quite symptomatically, in the last decade, have clearly shown the Proteus character of violent collective action as a means to ”make more visible” different interests challenged in terms of representation and mediation, a means the use of which may not necessarily be linked with inherently anti-democratic standpoints or have ”anti-system”, delegitimising impact, certainly not in the long run (cf. Strmiska 1998). In explaining the process of establishment of ”anti-system” formations that favour violence as a means of political pressure, blackmailing or intimidation of political elites, great stress has recently been laid on the evolution of interactions of different actors of a particular social and political conflict. Ideologies favouring violence continue to be considered as relatively important actors eliminating obstacles in the use of illegal practices, including political violence as a means of political pressure, stressing, however, with stress laid on the fact that acceptance an exploitation of illegal action may not fall within the same category as the theoretical justification of violence and that practicing violence is not inherent to the type of interests defended by protesting groups, or to their ideologies. In addition, both the conventional or unconventional forms of collective participation, civic disobedience and sporadic violent action of different protest movements and groups have often intertwined. These conclusions drawn on the basis of extensive analyses of modus operandi of the different actors, beginning with mass protest movements, through ”new social movements” and ending with secret terrorist organisations, negated the simplified concept of the practice of violence as the universal and genuine feature of extremist orientation, contributing at least indirectly to the questioning of the concept of extremism which overestimated and over-isolated the factor of self-definition against procedural-regime consensus (cf. Della Porta 1990; Catanzaro 1990b). However, rehabilitation of extremist and unconventional violence, and even less of terrorism, is not the objective to be followed. In fact, every act of terrorist violence, regardless of its concrete political purpose, has a negative and destructive impact for   the working of a liberal democratic system.  Every act of terrorist violence disintegrates the potential of mutual trust and voluntary cooperation that no democratic society worthy of this denomination can do without in the long run. In the past, there were many suggestions that the potential danger of terrorism was overestimated and that in spite of causing much ado, the actual damages caused were caused was relatively small.  This approach usually associated with otherwise reasonable warning against exaggerated anti-terrorist reaction, which can exceed, in terms of negative impact, the direct consequences of terrorist action. However, this superficially optimistic view is not recommendable, and there are at least two reasons for it. This opinion is likely to be acceptable for terrorism (usually subversive)  of a lesser intensity and scope, but it is unjustifiable in the case of macro-terrorism whose actors dispose of considerable resources which could result in such degree of terror allowing for the full exploitation of its potential and triggering off an irreversible process of destruction of any consensual base of the human society (cf. Walter 1964; Walter 1969). Of greatest relevance in this context however is the fact that each serious assessment of the potential danger of terrorism should take into consideration both the immediate consequences of terrorist campaigns, which are easiest to identify, and the long-term psychological impacts that are more difficult to appreciate. The impact of terrorism seems to be rather underestimated in this respect. The consequences of terrorist action cannot be assessed only according to criteria applied to different forms  of conventional conflicts. If political terrorism is  an extremely malign form of psychological war, it should be measured as such. It is extremely difficult to define ”victory” or ”defeat” in a war like this. Victory over terrorists may have different forms. It may not necessarily be physical elimination. The primary objective is to make terrorists and potential terrorists to give up this extremely malign manner of pursuing their political goals.  This requires both an adequate political and military capacity of effective selective repression, and, in the first place, a system of sanctions and incentives for potential subversive actors prone to experimenting with unconventional forms of violence, a system both diminishing the risk of ”critical choices” (adoption of illegal action, preference to violent form of action, creation of clandestine organisational structures, etc.) (cf. Della Porta 1990) and – in the worse case – at least favouring reversibility of such choices, i.e. either their reintegration in the system of pluralistic political representation and participation. However, there is no universal political remedy to extinguish the danger of subversive terrorism for good.





The presented paper represents as a part of the research project GA 407/00/0421.







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[1] With regard to the purpose and inherent limits of this brief paper, I will not discusse the complex issues of  international and transnational terrorism as well as of religious terrorist violence.

Copyright (c) 2000 Maxmilián Strmiska

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