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Communist terrorism describes terrorism carried out in the advancement of, or by groups who adhere to, Communism or related ideologies, such as Leninism, Maoism, or Stalinism. Communist terrorism in history has taken the form of state-sponsored terrorism in communist nations, such as the Soviet Union,[1][2] China,[2] North Korea[2] and Cambodia.[3] Non-state actors, such as the Red Brigades, Front Line, and the Red Army Faction have also engaged in communist terrorism.[4][5] These groups hope to inspire the masses to rise up and begin a revolution overthrowing existing political and economic systems.[6]

The end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union have been credited with leading to a marked decrease in such terrorism.[7] Brian Crozier, founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict, who "recognised earlier than most the odious nature of the Soviet regime, and exposed the crimes of Lenin and Stalin long before the release of Soviet archives convinced other historians that he was right"[8] has said that communism was the primary source of both state-sponsored and non-state terrorism.[9]


In the 1930s, the term "communist terrorism" was used by the Nazi Party in Germany as part of a propaganda campaign to spread fear of communism. The Nazis blamed communist terrorism for the Reichstag Fire, which they used as an excuse to push through legislation removing personal freedom from German citizens.[10][not in citation given][11] In the 1940s and 1950s, various Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, witnessed the rise of communist groups engaging in terrorism. John Slocum has written that communists in present day Malaysia used terrorism to draw attention to their ideological beliefs,[12] but Phillip Deery has written that the Malaysian insurgents were called communist terrorists only as part of a propaganda campaign.[13]

In the 1960s, the Sino–Soviet split (between two communist states) led to a marked increase in terrorist activity in the region.[14] That decade also saw various terrorist groups commencing operations in Europe, Japan, and the Americas. Yonah Alexander deemed these groups Fighting Communist Organizations (FCOs),[15][16] and says they rose out of the student union movement protesting against the Vietnam War. In Western Europe, these groups' actions were known as Euroterrorism.[17] The founders of FCOs argued that violence was necessary to achieve their goals, and that peaceful protest was both ineffective and insufficient to attain them.[18][19] In the 1970s, there were an estimated 50 Marxist or Leninist groups operating in Turkey, and an estimated 225 in Italy. Groups also began operations in Ireland and the United Kingdom.[20] These groups were deemed a major threat by NATO and the Italian, German, and British governments.[21] Communist terrorism did not enjoy full support from all ideologically sympathetic groups. The Italian Communist Party, for example, condemned such activity.[22]


While Lenin systematically denounced the terrorism practiced by the Socialist Revolutionaries and opposed regicide, he also supported terror as a tool, and considered mass terror a strategic and efficient method for advancing revolutionary goals.[23] According to Trotsky, Lenin emphasized the absolute necessity of terror and as early as 1904, when Lenin said, "The dictatorship of the proletariat is an absolutely meaningless expression without Jacobin coercion."[24] In 1905, Lenin directed members of the St. Petersburg "Combat Committee" to commit acts of robbery, arson, and other terrorist acts.[25]

Not all scholars agree on Lenin's position towards terrorism. Joan Witte contends that he opposed the practice except when wielded by the party and the Red Army after 1917.[25] She also suggests he opposed the use of terrorism as a mindless act but endorsed its use to advance the communist revolution.[25][contradiction] Chaliand and Blin say Lenin advocated mass terror but objected to disorderly, unorganized, or petty acts of terrorism.[23] According to Richard Drake, Lenin had abandoned any reluctance to using terrorist tactics by 1917, believing all resistance to communist revolution should be met with maximum force. Drake says terrorist intent in Lenin's program was unmistakable, as acknowledged by Trotsky in his book Terrorism and Communism: a Reply, published in 1918.[26] In the book, Trotsky provided an elaborate justification for the use of terror, stating "The man who repudiates terrorism in principle, i.e., repudiates measures of suppression and intimidation towards determined and armed counterrevolution, must reject all idea of the political supremacy of the working class and its revolutionary dictatorship."[24]



The Cambodian genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, which led to the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million to 2.5 million people has been described as an act of terrorism by Joseph S. Tuman.[27]


Valentino has estimated terrorism in the Chinese Civil War resulted in the death of between 1.8 million and 3.5 million people between 1927 and 1949.[28] In the late 1940s, the United States Department of State reported that after World War II, communist terrorism—including looting, massacres, and forced conscription into militias—in China surpassed the actions of Imperial Japan.[29]


The "Shining Path" communists are widely regarded as having committed terrorist acts and are commonly described as a terrorist organization because of its many attacks on civilians.

The Philippines

The New People's Army (NPA) founded in 1969 have been described as the third major terrorist group operating in the Philippines. The group carried out attacks between 1987 and 1992 before engaging in a hiatus. Between 2000 and 2006, they carried out an additional 42 attacks.[30]


In Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe in 1980), during the Bush War of the 1970s, guerrillas operating in the country were considered communist terrorists by the government. The organisations in question received war materiel and financial support from numerous communist countries, and received training in several, including the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Both guerrilla armies involved in the war—the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) attached to the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)—were initially based in the Lusaka area of Zambia, so as to be within striking distance of Rhodesia.[31] ZANU and ZANLA moved their bases to Mozambique's Tete Province around 1972, and based themselves there until the war's end in 1979. ZIPRA remained based in Zambia. In line with the Maoist ideology professed by its parent organisation, ZANU, ZANLA used Chinese Maoist tactics to great effect, politicising the rural population and hiding amongst the locals between strikes.[32] While ZIPRA conducted similar operations to a lesser extent, most of its men made up a conventional-style army in Zambia, which was trained by Cuban and Soviet officers to eventually overtly invade Rhodesia and engage the Rhodesian Security Forces openly. This ultimately never happened.[33]

Soviet Union

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the use of terrorism to subdue people characterized the new communist regime. Historian Anna Geifman stated that this was "evident in the regime's very origins." An estimated 17,000 people died as a result of the initial campaign of violence known as Red Terror.[34] Lenin stated that his "Jacobian party would never reject terror, nor could it do so," referring to the Jacobian Reign of Terror of 1793-1794 as a model for the Bolshevik Red Terror.[35] Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (the Soviet secret police), widely employed terrorist tactics, especially against peasants who refused to surrender their grain to the government.[36] Upon initiating the New Economic Policy(NEP) Lenin stated, "It is a mistake to think the NEP has put an end to terrorism. We shall return to terrorism, and it will be an economic terrorism".[37] Other acts described examples of Soviet state-sponsored terrorism include the deaths of an estimated one million World War II prisoners of war, who were used as slave labor and frequently worked to death,[38] and attacks on the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe.[39]

South Africa

During the apartheid era in South Africa, the government under the Afrikaner National Party deemed the ANC and its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, as communist terrorism.[40] As a result, a series of laws were introduced by the government, such as the Suppression of Communism Act, which defined and banned organizations and people judged to be communists. In 1967 the government promulgated the Terrorism Act, which made terrorist acts a statuary crime and implemented indefinite detention against those captured.[40]


During World War II the communist Viet Minh fought a guerilla campaign led by Ho Chi Minh against the Japanese occupation forces and, following Japan's surrender, French colonial forces. This insurgency continued until 1954 as the Vietminh evolved into the Vietcong (VC), which fought against both the South Vietnamese government and American forces.[41] These campaigns involved terrorism resulting in the deaths of thousands.[42][43] Although an armistice was signed between the Viet Minh and the French forces in 1954, terrorist actions continued.[44] Carol Winkler has written that in the 1950s, Vietcong terrorism was rife in South Vietnam, with political leaders, provincial chiefs, teachers, nurses, doctors, and members of the military targeted. Between 1965 and 1972, Vietcong terrorists had killed over 33,000 people and abducted a further 57,000.[45][46] Terrorist actions in Saigon were described by Nghia M. Vo as "long and murderous." In these campaigns, South Vietnamese prime minister Tran Van Huong was the target of an assassination attempt; in 1964 alone, the Vietcong carried out 19,000 attacks on civilian targets.[47]

Infant victim of Dak Son massacre

Douglas Pike has called the Massacre at Huế one of the worst communist terrorist actions of the Vietnam War.[48] Estimates of the losses in the massacre have been cited as high as 6,000 dead.[49][50] The United States Army recorded as killed "3800 killed in and around Huế, 2786 confirmed civilians massacred, 2226 civilians found in mass graves and 16 non Vietnamese civilians killed."[51] While some historians have claimed a majority of these deaths occurred from US bombing in the fight to retake the city, the vast majority of the dead were found in mass graves outside the city.[52] Benjamin A. Valentino has estimated a total death toll of between 45,000 and 80,000 people between 1954 and 1975 from VC terrorism.[28]

Pike has also described the Dak Son Massacre, in which the Vietcong used flamethrowers against civilians in Dak Son, killing 252, as a terrorist act.[53] In May 1967, Dr. Tran Van-Luy reported to the World Health Organization "that over the previous 10 years Communist terrorists had destroyed 174 dispensaries, maternity homes and hospitals."[54] Ami Pedahzur has written that "the overall volume and lethality of Vietcong terrorism rivals or exceeds all but a handful (e.g. Algeria, Sri Lanka) of terrorist campaigns waged over the last third of the twentieth century,"[55] and that the VC used suicide terrorism as a form of propaganda of the deed.[56] Arthur J. Dommen has written that the majority of those killed due to VC terrorism were civilians, caught in ambushes as they traveled on buses, and that the group burnt down villages and forcibly conscripted members.[57]

See also


  1. Fleming pp110
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Chaliand page 197/202
  3. Clymer page 107
  4. C. J. M. Drake page 19
  5. Sloan pp61
  6. Yonah ppIX
  7. David C. Wills page 219
  8. "Brian Crozier". Telegraph. 2012-08-08. Retrieved 2012-08-09. 
  9. Brian Crozier page 203
  10. Conway pp17
  11. Gadberry pp7
  12. Slocum pp75
  13. Phillip Deery. The Terminology of Terrorism: Malaya, 1948–52. Journal of Southeast Asia Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (June 2003), pp. 231–247.
  14. Weinberg pp14
  15. Alexander pp16
  16. Harmon pp13
  17. Harmon pp58
  18. Drake pp102
  19. Sandler pp10
  20. Alexander pp51-52
  21. Paoletti p202
  22. Richard Drake. Terrorism and the Decline of Italian Communism: Domestic and International Dimensions. Journal of Cold War Studies, Volume 12, Number 2, Spring 2010 1531-3298
  23. 23.0 23.1 Chaliand, Gérard; Blin, Arnaud (2007). The history of terrorism: from antiquity to al Qaeda. University of California Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-520-24709-3. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 Dallin, Alexander; Breslauer, George W. (1970). Political terror in communist systems. Stanford University Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8047-0727-5. 
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Harmon, Christopher C. (2008). Terrorism today. Routledge. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-7146-4998-6. 
  26. Smith, Paul J. (2008). The terrorism ahead: confronting transnational violence in the twenty-first century. M.E. Sharpe. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-7656-1988-4. 
  27. Tuman pp180
  28. 28.0 28.1 Valentino p88
  29. Van Slyke pp752
  30. Cox pp97
  31. Windrich page 279
  32. Wood, J. R. T. (24 May 1995). "Rhodesian Insurgency". Oudeschip: Allport Books. Retrieved 30 May 2012. 
  33. Thompson, Leroy (October 1991). Dirty Wars: Elite Forces vs the Guerrillas (First ed.). Newton Abbot: David & Charles. p. 158. ISBN 978-0-7153-9441-0. 
  34. Geifman pp21
  35. Marcus C. Levitt page 152-153
  36. Richard W. Mansbach page 336
  37. David Schmidtz page 191
  38. Moeller page 33
  39. Zugger page 444
  40. 40.0 40.1 Schutz, Barry M. (2011). "South Africa's paradox of violence and legitimacy". In Rosenfeld, Jean. Terrorism, Identity, and Legitimacy: The Four Waves Theory and Political Violence. Taylor & Francis. p. 199. ISBN 978-0-415-57857-8. 
  41. Mockaitis pp23
  42. Crenshaw pp503
  43. Pedahzur pp114
  44. Freeman pp192
  45. Winkler pp17
  46. Forest pp82
  47. Vo pp28/29
  48. Lanning pp185
  49. {Anderson, David L. The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War. 2004, page 98-9}
  50. Brown pp163
  51. Krohn pp126
  52. T. Louise Brown pp163
  53. Lanning pp185-186
  54. Rigal-Cellard pp229
  55. Pedahzur pp116
  56. Pedahzur pp117
  57. Dommen pp503


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