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Does Socialist Critique of Terrorism Apply to Animal Activists?


The animal rights movement has long been divided between militants and pacifists, between those who support violence against property or institutional exploiters and those who do not. In one camp, we find activists like Steven Best, who argue the scope of animal exploitation is so great that preventative violence is a moral necessity. In the other, we find activists like Gary Francione, who argue all forms of violence are wrong, including those directed at institutional exploiters or their property.

I’d argue that by focusing so intently on the morality of violence, the animal rights movement often ignores whether the debated tactics are effective. Additionally, I’d like to investigate what, if anything, we can learn from other movements that have grappled with the question of terrorism. In this essay, I will be examining the revolutionary workers’ struggle specifically.

Most socialists don’t have a moral opposition to violence, but recognize it’s generally incapable of creating large-scale, permanent change when carried out by individuals or small groups. By the 1890s, according to Randall Law, even anarchists were distancing themselves from the doctrine of ‘propaganda by the deed,’ with luminaries such as Peter Kropotkin declaring a “structure based on centuries of history cannot be destroyed with a few kilos of explosives.”

In a 1911 article, “Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism,” Leon Trotsky, whatever one’s interpretation of the Bolshevik Revolution might be, neatly summarized the socialist case against political violence carried out by individuals. First, it’s important to understand how Trotsky defined terrorism for the sake of his article. Terrorism was not limited to “the killing of an employer… (or) an assassination attempt, with revolver in hand, against a government minister.” Terrorism included “the damaging of machines by workers, for example.”

For Trotsky, the human masses were the fundamental agents of progressive change. Practitioners of terrorism falsely believed they could become these agents themselves and skip past the process of winning the masses to their position. “In our eyes,” Trotsky writes, “individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission.”

Obviously, the points about agency Trotsky raises here doesn’t apply to the animal rights movement. Unlike the human masses, who must collectively liberate themselves, animals cannot do so. They must rely on the human masses for their freedom. Some contemporary socialists, such as Paul D’Amato, have argued this fact justifies denying animals rights. But such a position ignores that many human groups, such as infants or the severely-mentally disabled, cannot fight for their interests either and must rely on the human masses to do so for them.

Still, if Trotsky is right, and terrorism discourages collective action by the human masses, when that is what’s required for real change for animals, one must conclude terrorism is a dead-end. On the other hand, one could also argue that collective action by the human masses on behalf of animals is so unlikely in the present era that individual terrorism is the best for which we can hope.

In his article, however, Trotsky goes on to highlight how little terrorism achieves, besides increased police repression. “The smoke from the confusion clears away, the panic disappears, the successor of the murdered minister makes his appearance, life again settles into the old rut, the wheel of capitalist exploitation turns as before; only the police repression grows more savage and brazen,” Trotsky writes. “And as a result, in place of the kindled hopes and artificially aroused excitement comes disillusionment and apathy.”

Trotsky’s point regarding increased police repression is undeniable in the context of the animal rights movement to anyone who has read the work of writers such as Will Potter on the Green Scare. Further, as Trotsky says, the wheel of systemic exploitation is generally unaffected by terrorism. Slaughterhouses and laboratories are generally rebuilt. While the non-human lives saved by terrorism should not be ignored, animal activists frequently seem to mistake the use of terrorism as the symptom of a robust movement, when in fact it’s the opposite. Resorting to such desperate actions represents an inability to garner the mass support needed to create real change.

To be clear, I’m not prescribing solutions in this article. I’m merely suggesting animal activists move beyond abstract debate regarding the morality of political violence to a concrete discussion of its effectiveness. To do this, we needn’t reinvent the wheel. Let’s learn what we can from other movements that have grappled with the issue of terrorism. Some of the lessons won’t be applicable, but many will.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York. Visit his website at

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer. 

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