Terrorism: means to a dead end
Far-left terrorist groups, such as the Weathermen in the United States and the Red Brigades in Italy generally emerged at the tail end of the 1960s with the beginning of the disintegration of the various New Left movements. The members of these groups acquired some of their ideas, such as they were, from this movement. This is not suggest, of course, that the two sides are identical, which would be as absurd as the right-wingers today who are convinced Islam is inherently terroristic.
The vast majority of the Left clearly rejected the tactic of terrorism. At the same time, the terrorist groups did not arise fully-formed from the fertile soil of pure evil, either, nor can they be written off as some sort of government conspiracy (although police infiltration is always a sub-plot with such conspirational groups). Understanding the “logic” of the terrorists who advertised themselves as revolutionaries requires us to consider the weak aspects of the New Left movement (which included some rather old ideas). Instead of speaking in such generalities, though, I want to take the example of the New Left movement in Japan, which spawned a lethal group called the Red Army. Before looking at the characteristics of the Japanese New Left, here is a short rundown of the rap sheet of the Red Army.
The group was formed in 1969 by a faction of the (second) Communist League who wanted to move beyond the street fights against riot police to utilize bombs and other weapons. Various defeats at the hands of the police, including the forced expulsion early that year of the radical students occupying Tokyo University, convinced some that the problem was insufficient firepower. The Red Army Faction of the Communists League, as the new group was officially known, argued that the task was to foment an armed uprising in Japan as the first stage in what would be a worldwide revolutionary war led by an international Red Army. The new organization immediately set about putting this idea,such as it was, into practice, beginning a campaign of attacking police boxes in urban areas with Molotov cocktails and exploding pipe bombs at train stations, under bombastic or bloodcurdling slogans such as “War in Tokyo! War in Osaka!” Military training was also conducted in a mountainous area in preparation for an attack on the Prime Minister’s Residence.
This attack was never carried out because the police arrested over 50 of the group’s members, which took the wind out of the group’s sails. The Red Army bounced back in 1970 when it became the first Japanese group to hijack a plane, which was forced to fly to North Korea. This was apparently part of a grandiose plan to set up bases overseas for waging revolution. From this point on the group caused more trouble outside of Japan than within it, including a number of other hijack incidents. Some members allied themselves with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. On behalf of that group, the Red Army committed its most heinous crime, when three members used automatic weapons to kill 24 people who had the misfortune to be at the Lod Airport in Tel Aviv on May 30, 1972.
“Socialism” and “revolution”
The Red Army Faction justified its actions as necessary steps towards revolution, but like New Left as a whole the stated goal of socialism was poorly understood. The New Left activists imagined that they were making a quantum leap beyond the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) by calling for socialism and rejecting the “two-stage” strategy of first seeking a “bourgeois democratic” revolution. But here their understanding of “socialism” was not half as new as they imagined, as it was largely taken from the tenets of the “old” left (Stalinism and Trotskyism)
The two organizations formed at the end of the 1950s which became the nucleus of the new left movement – the Japanese Revolutionary Communist League (JRCL) and the Communist League (or “Bund”) – believed that the Soviet Union, for all its flaws, was at the very least a post-capitalist society. Trotsky famously coined the term “degenerated worker’s state” to describe the Soviet Union, and the Japanese New Left advanced similar ideas, using different terminology, describing it for instance as an “alienated form of a transitional society.” The socialist society they envisaged and sought to achieve would similarly have an economic foundation of nationalized industry and a “planned economy,” but with a leadership wiser and more benevolent than the Stalinist bureaucrats.
There were a few on the New Left who argued that the Soviet Union was a state capitalist society, such as the theory developed by Tadayuki Tsushima in the fifties. But the actual content of this theory was not radically different than Trotsky’s idea of a revolution “betrayed.” That is,Tsushima believed that a socialist revolution created a post-capitalist workers’ state in Russia, but the country later reverted to capitalism by foolishly failing to implement a proper system of labour vouchers and a Paris Commune-style state.
In short, the New Left activists took it for granted that the Soviet Union provided an example of a society that was at least post-capitalist, and they considered the Russian Revolution a model for their own revolution in Japan. The expectation was that a Japanese revolution would similarly arise out of some social crisis – whether an economic collapse or war – and in such a situation a small but determined vanguard party could literally push the radicalised working class in the direction of socialism at the critical moment. They had no patience for, or even awareness of, the idea that a socialist revolution would require most of the members of society to desire that change.
So naturally they did not view their task as propagating socialist ideas to convince as many people as possible of the desirability and feasibility of a socialist society while exposing the futility of reforming capitalism. On the whole, the working class was viewed as an unthinking mass that the force of events, guided or even accelerated by the hand of the vanguard party, would propel in the direction of fundamental social change.
The Red Army’s strategy was an extension of this mistaken understanding of both the ultimate end and the means of getting there. They also believed revolution would arise naturally out of a crisis, and more specifically a revolutionary war, with their own task being to foment the crisis and lead the workers on to victory in a global battle for socialism. It must be said, though,that the ultimate victory interested them far less than the heroic combat itself, which was pictured along the lines of the cartoonish scenes of bloody class war in Jack London’s Iron Heel.
Reforms painted red
With all of their talk of socialism and revolution, one might think that the New Left activists would have shunned reformism. But in fact they viewed capitalism was in fact developing as rapidly as in China today, the revolutionaries felt they would have to manufacture a political crisis themselves to awaken the working class by sabotaging government policies. Here they had a view of how a “revolutionary situation” could be brought about that was every bit as mechanical as the “domino theory” used to justify the US military action in Vietnam. The activists felt that if this or that reformist political struggle were to succeed, it would help to create a crisis and would thus be the first step on the revolutionary road.
This approach was evident in the movement against the 1960 revision in the US-Japan Security Treaty, which was the first major political struggle for the New Left to engage in. The student radicals who played a key role in that movement imagined that if they blocked the Treaty they would create a crisis for US and Japanese imperialism. It is interesting that the JCP also participated in this movement, but opposed the Treaty on the equally fictitious grounds that it would strengthen Japan’s status as a “semi-colony” of the United States.
Perhaps because they were often taking part in the same reformist movements that the JCP was involved in, the New Left groups placed an emphasis on the tactics employed, particularly the use of physical force to confront the riot police or occupy buildings. They felt such confrontational tactics were inherently revolutionary, or at least preferable to the more legalistic approach of the JCP. This was also connected to the idea that socialist ideas would emerge out of such action, rather than there being a necessity to work out a political program first. This action über alles attitude was expressed in the founding document of the Communist League, which said that the “programme for the emancipation of the proletariat can only emerge in the midst the trial by fire of praxis involving a response to the tasks of the class struggle that emerge every day.”
Ironically, in practice (or “praxis”) this is a fiery rewording of arch-revisionist Eduard Berstein’s belief that, “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing; the movement is everything.” One psychological side-effect of mechanically linking reformism to revolution was that the activists exhibited symptoms of manic depression. Pinning so many hopes on reformist battles that in most cases were doomed to failure, and at any rate would always ultimately fail to open up a revolutionary situation, their initial euphoria inevitably turned to despair and bitter reflections on what should have been done. The desperate and doomed attempt to manufacture a political or social crisis is taken to its absurd extreme with the criminal acts of the Red Army.
Crossing the line
Violence was a general characteristic of the New Left in Japan. The street battles with the riot police, just mentioned, were considered an integral part of the revolutionary movement and raised nearly to an art form, with activists donning construction helmets (featuring painted logos of their organization), wielding long outside observers, such as French critic Roland Barthes who described riots as a “writing of actions which expurgates violence from its Occidental being,” adding that, “there is a colours – red-white-blue helmets colours contrary to ours, refer historical: there is a syntax of actions (overturn, uproot, drag, pile), performed like a prosaic sentence, not like ejaculation.” (Empire of Signs)
Setting aside the question of what Barthes was smoking, such observers have been less ejaculatory themselves they witnessed the violent clashes between new left organizations. In part internecine violence was a result overblown organizational egos, each group convinced it was the true vanguard. But there were other issues at stake yakuza gangster could understand. University campuses were the operational base for most groups, and each had a vital interest in controlling student governments, which offered access to buildings and funds. In the struggles to hold on to strongholds or take bases of other groups, student activists did not hesitate to rely on brute force.
In his engrossing memoir (Kotan Publishing, 2005), Manabu Miyazaki, a student activist who returned to the criminal underworld he grew up in, describes how he and his attacked a member of a rival group had seized a student union room at their university: university: “We lifted him on our shoulders and banged him against the wall of the student union room a few times to quiet him down. We also took him to the hut in Ome, where we beat him until he fainted. But after that, all we did was force Suntory Red whiskey down his throat and then, when he was good and drunk, strip him of his clothes and set him loose.” Considering that the author was a member of the JCP’s student group, which was considered less violent than many of the new left groups, one can get a rough idea of the atmosphere. And in relating this incident, Miyazaki emphasizes that this was a mere prank compared to the violence a few years later because activists had yet to even consider killing their adversaries.
The line separating beating to a pulp and murder was frequently crossed in the early 1970s. Typically students were kidnapped, as in the tale above, tortured to extract a “self-criticism,” and killed in the process, whether intentionally or not. Even more chilling than the senseless murders themselves, were the statements sometimes issued in justification of such acts,invariably claiming that a “tool of the state” or “spy” had been necessarily eliminated. Here is precisely the demented mindset of the Red Army fanatics as well. (Just I was finishing this article a Greek outfit calling itself “Revolutionary Struggle” took it upon itself to shoot a rocket-propelled grenade at the US Embassy in Athens. An article in the New York Times informed me that this is a Marxist group, but their journalist should have heeded Marx’s own advice about how it is best to not “judge an individual by what he thinks of himself.”)