Insurrectionary attacks by small radical cells against the infrastructure and the elites of state and capital have typically failed at inspiring mass organizing and sustained revolutionary struggle.
It is usually exciting to see reports on insurrectionary attacks on capitalist structures in the news; for example, the recent torching of a fancy-pants car dealership in Melbourne, Australia. An unidentified anarchist cell (unidentified by the corporate media, anyway) has claimed responsibility, although the police are expressing their skepticism that the fire wasn’t an accident.
There is an argument to be made that such actions can inspire and educate the general population, and drive them to take up revolutionary struggle. This notion is encompassed in the idea of the “propaganda of the deed“, a philosophy that emphasizes actions over words, and is usually cited as justification for assassinations, bombings, arson, street battles, and other acts of sabotage and violence.
I’m not going to deny that I am not emotionally roused by such actions, especially when they take place in the West. The dearth of radical political action in the United States makes it very easy to want to cheerlead violent actions by clandestine groups. However, we must keep a cool and logical head when it comes to theorizing and practicing radical politics, and analyze specific tactics from an empirical and historical standpoint is crucial. History shows that the propaganda of the deed has typically failed to drive any kind of real emancipatory struggle. From the Weather Underground in the US to the MEK in Iran, insurrectionary actions devoid of any mass organizational politics has always failed to rouse the general population to revolution.
(I’ll henceforth refer to this phenomena of militancy without the masses as “adventurism”, a somewhat pejorative term that was popularized by Lenin to distinguish individual acts of violence from actions taken by a popular organization or community).
Not that there haven’t been some instances where individual insurrectionary action hasn’t resulted in inspiration; a good example of this would be Bhagat Singh and the 1929 bombing of India’s Central Legislative Assembly. Several people were injured, but nobody was killed; nonetheless, Singh was executed, and became a martyr for the cause of India’s independence from British occupation. Today, Bhagat Singh is an undeniably popular figure, a hero for most, and a symbol over which everybody from Maoist rebels to right-wing Hindu nationalists lay claim to.
But it is crucial to recognize that Bhagat Singh, and the formation of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HRSA), was a direct result of the abrupt end of the Non-Cooperation Movement spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi. His unilateral call to end the movement resulted in many former supporters becoming disillusioned with non-violence, and a mass organization that was dominated by a single figure; thus, mass politics was abandoned in favor of armed struggle by small cells typically dominated by middle-class intellectuals (as opposed to the peasant base of Gandhi’s popular non-violent movement). And while the actions of the HRSA and its members were spectacular and probably effective at keeping alive the presence of revolutionary activity in South Asia, a mass violent revolt didn’t materialize, and the violence of the HRSA quickly resulted in most of its members being killed or arrested by 1931, a few short years after its inception. Mass violence against British institutions did eventually begin to materialize, but only after another decade and half of resurgent mass organizing (like the Salt March and the Quit India movement), as well as the rise (and fall) of the Indian National Army. The main point in all this being that the effectiveness of insurrectionary tactics in the British Raj (if they were indeed effective) was entirely dependent on a previous (and concurrent) mass organization which developed intimate ties amongst the general population.
Another interesting case would be the actions of anarchists in the United States. American anarchists were behind some spectacular attacks against capitalist and statist institutions, such as the Haymarket Affair (1886) and the Wall Street Bombing (1920). I personally find these events highly problematic, to say the least, due to their impact on innocent civilians, and wouldn’t support such actions today–but nonetheless, the effects of such actions (especially when concurrent with mass strikes and marches of hundreds of thousands of people) were probably somewhat effective in bringing home the seriousness of the situation to the ruling class, and the eventual rise of Keynesianism and the incorporation of labor-centered institutions into the State (although the real motivation for the leftward shift of the West was probably due to the rise of communism in Russia as an existential threat to American capitalism).
But aside from these instances, history seems scattered with examples of the failures of adventurism. The two previously mentioned instances of individualist attacks on State and Capital took place during periods of time where there was already mass support for radical change in society, and communities doing organizing work and whatnot; thus, they are more exceptional than not, and do not serve as a good model to look to when analyzing effective radical strategy in the modern West.
Here is a list of some countries which saw militant struggles devoid of any real connection to the working class or general population.
Germany and the RAF: The Red Army Faction (RAF), a Marxist-Leninist urban guerilla group that was formed out of the student protest movement in West Germany in the 1960s, is a pretty good example of the more extreme variation of adventurism. The RAF disavowed any kind of peaceful antagonism to the West German government (the argument being that the people in power were of the “Auschwitz generation” and full of former Nazis, and thus could not be reasoned with), and focused on using assassinations and bombings as methods to “resist” the State. But even though they had a surprising level of popularity in West Germany, the RAF failed to develop any kind of mass institution or any real connections with the German working class; their alliances seemed purely among fellow intellectuals and students. As such, despite a long period of militancy and some high-profile attacks, the RAF was never able to bring any real progressive change to the region, and eventually dissolved themselves in 1998.
Italy and the Red Brigades: Italy also saw its radical politics in the 1970s dominated by violent organizations who could not be bothered with figuring out how to rally the general population to revolt. The Red Brigades, another Marxist-Leninist militant group like the RAF, carried out a series of bombings, bank robberies, and assassinations throughout the years of its operation. Their efforts climaxed when they kidnapped and executed Aldo Moro, the former Prime Minister of Italy; needless to say, the Red Brigades did not last long after that. And the effects of the “Years of Lead” is not terribly impressive; any progressive influence that the Red Brigades might have had on Italian society has most certainly been erased by the rise of Berlusconi and his pseudo-fascist political and economic empire.
Iran and the MEK: The Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), or the People’s Mojahedin of Iran, was a leftist militant group which first fought against the Shah, and then against the Ayatollahs after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (during which they supported the clerics against the liberals and moderates). Their ideology was far more innovative than the Marxist-Leninist groups of Europe–they espoused a very unique blend of Islamic principles and Marxist political economy. However, like the previous examples, the MEK were mostly middle-class intellectuals, and devoid of any concrete connections to the Iranian people in general. As a result, popular support was mostly behind the Ayatollahs, and the MEK was never able to develop a mass base (and it’s not a given that they tried very hard, either). Thus, even though the MEK carried out many street battles and bombings (including one high-profile event in 1981 where 70 top officials of the Islamic Republic were killed by a well-placed bomb during a meeting), the masses never responded to their efforts to rouse them through vanguardist militancy.
The case of the MEK’s failures is especially frustrating given the previous experiences of leftists in Iran; one of the biggest parties in the ’40s and ’50s was the Tudeh (which literally means “the masses”), an astoundingly popular communist party backed by the Soviet Union. This party, despite the subservience of its actions and ideology to a strict Soviet line, managed to rally huge proportions of the population–indeed, its dominance and influence over the government of Mosaddeq was one of the main reasons why the US and Britain decided to back the 1953 coup that saw the return of the Shah.
The United States and the Weather Underground: This is perhaps the most important case to study for radical activists in the West. The Weather Underground (yet another middle-class intellectual movement that came out of the student movement of the ’60s) was a Marxist militant group which carried out a series of bombings with the intention of toppling the US government, assisting national liberation groups in the Third World, and eventually establishing communism. They operated for a few short years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and bombed a variety of locations such as police stations, military recruitment centers, and even the Pentagon. But again, like in the previous case-studies, the Weather Underground was simply too alienated from the masses, and thus completely ineffective at achieving their goal of inspiring the US public to take up arms against their government.
The case of the Weather Underground is probably the best argument against putting the resources of Western radicals into random acts of sabotage and “propaganda of the deeds.” The situation of mass politics today in the United States is far more precarious and underdeveloped than it was in the ’60s; thus, if adventurist tactics were ineffective then, they will most certainly be ineffective today.
If you actually care about transforming the underlying structures and institutions that perpetuate oppression and alienation, then the real work has to be in organizing and agitating–not flamboyant acts of terror in an effort to “scare” the ruling class or “inspire” the general population. If organizing work is done correctly, then the development of the struggle into an armed revolt will proceed organically and by the will of the people–as opposed to the people looking on in confusion as some middle-class students set fire to building, hand out flimsy pamphlets, and shout through a megaphone about how “the sheeple need to wake up” (I exaggerate, but you get my point).
All in all, I think the theoretical argument against adventurism is concisely summed up in the famous phrase: “You can’t blow up a social relation.“