there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror

What did Marx mean by this? The red terror, rather than civil war, seems morally outrageous, as well as complicit in all manner of deformations of Marxism.

  • Does he mean what Mao and Stalin did? Were those deformations? Or the natural consequence of wanting the state to control what people do?
    – user4894
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 1:24
  • Source, please?
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 22:38
  • ok, you linked to it, you should have cited it imho. in any case you have cherry-picked the quote, out of context. bad!
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 22:47
  • 2
    It's hard to imagine he wrote the phrase "revolutionary terror" without being at least partly in mind of the "reign of terror" in revolutionary France. Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 6:00
  • 1
    Complete quote: "The purposeless massacres perpetrated since the June and October events, the tedious offering of sacrifices since February and March, the very cannibalism of the counterrevolution will convince the nations that there is only one way in which the murderous death agonies of the old society and the bloody birth throes of the new society can be shortened, simplified and concentrated, and that way is revolutionary terror." So the context is that of White Terror: the mindless violence of counterrevolution feasting upon the vanquished. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 19:15

5 Answers 5



1 When Marx used the phrase 'revolutionärer Terror' ('Neue Rheinische Zeitung', 7 November 1848) he almost certainly had the French Reign of Terror in mind. He also had not thought politics through to the depth of his later years. I suggest that while Marx never repudiated revolutionary violence, he came to see the Reign of Terror in a different and unsympathetic perspective. Revolutiomary terror he later turned against, violence he never did. 'Marx' should often read 'Marx and Engels' since their views on revolution were jointly developed. This is important in para. 7. I set violence and terror apart :


2 Marx's references to violence are fragmentary. There is no extended, detailed treatment anywhere in his work.

3 Materials are to hand, however, for revolutionary violence. In 1844-48 (roughly) Marx envisages 'total revolution, 'the shock of body against body' in the attempt to gain control of private property and the state. This means 'combat or death, bloody struggle or extinction' (Marx, 'The Poverty of Philosophy', Moscow, 1847/ 1975, 161. )

4 1848-70 : the key event here is the Paris Commune. Marx did not approve of the Commune's tactics in many respects but he wrote that : 'Collisions proceeding from the very conditions of bourgeois society must be fought out to the end, they cannot be conjured out of existence' (Marx, Collected Works, Moscow, 1977, 144, 149. 'To the end' suggests the kind of 'combat or death' scenario of the 1844-48 period.

5 1870+ : At the London Conference of the International (1871) Marx said : 'the governments are opposed to us : we must answer them with all the means that are at our disposal ... We must declare to the governments : we will proceed against you where it is possible and by force of arms when it may be necessary' (cited in D. McLellan, 'Karl Marx : His Life and Thought', London, 1973, 406.

6 The language varies but Marx seems to regard revolution as inevitable, possibly peaceful but more likely to be violent in the sense of the phrases I've quoted.


7 As said at the start 'terror' came to Marx's mind because of the experience of the last great revolution - the French Revolution with its Reign of Terror. It was the young Marx, not the mature Marx, who spoke readily of 'terror'. There is reason to believe that he came to reject 'terror' in the sense of the 'Reign of Terror' in France, 1793. Engels, whom we may take as speaking for him, says (1871 - after the Commune) : 'Thanks to the endless small terrors of the French, we can now have a better understanding of the Reign of Terror. We take it to mean the rule of the people who inspire terror. On the contrary, it is the rule of people who are themselves terror-stricken. Terror implies mostly useless cruelties perpetrated by frightened people to reassure themselves. I am convinced that we can attribute almost in its entirely the reign of Terror anno 1793 to petit-bourgeois philistines who soiled their trousers from fear, and to the dregs of the population' (see G Fabian, 'Karl Marx, Prince of Darkness', Xlibris, 2011, 524 for ref.).

8 Marx, then, endorsed revolutionary violence but saw it, so I read the quotes, as marking a time of drastic conflict in which private property and the state apparats would be taken over by the revolutionary class. He did not envisage the revolution as being followed by an extended period of terror such as occurred in Soviet Russia.


Marx was reacting to the taking of Vienna by "Croats" subservient to the monarchy. What followed was rape, murder, looting and arson to extraordinary proportions while the representatives of the bourgeoisie, the "German National Assembly" looked on. Marx advocated a revolutionary terror aimed at the monarchist fascists who had taken Austria to impose German rule on it and who were massacring anyone who opposed them. The terrible repression began in Nov 1848, following a working class and peasant uprising the month before. Whereas in France the bourgeoisie had opposed and overthrown the monarchy, in Germany the bourgeoisie timidly accepted the repression of the people and would not lift a finger. That is why Marx said the workers should not be passive to this but should fight back with all means at their disposal. He was advocating an armed uprising of Austrian patriots, workers and peasants against the German/Croat annexation and massacre. one can call him a 'terrorist' and indulge in moral outrage if it suits one. Words, after all, are only words. Here is a link to the whole Marx article

  • This whole German/Croat annexation talk sounds pretty much like a conspiracy theory. This wasn't about annexation, but about loyal troops of the Habsburg dynasty being spread all over the Austrian Empire with revolutionary sparks turning into fires everywhere. The Habsburg dynasty (which survived in the person of Franz Joseph I.) was pretty much the reason why there has never been a single German nation in the first place. Marx is advocating for revolutionary terror in order to tare apart the link between bourgeoisie and governments and stop their terror.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 19:44
  • He rightly points out the passivity of the German National Assembly. They were completely powerless, even to the point that they could not enforce the political immunity of one of their own, Robert Blum. He was shot by Austrian troops because of his involvement in the March Revolution.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 19:52
  • I tjhink that whatever the relevance of Croat annexation, wider considerations are needed to do justice to Marx's views on revolution and terror.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Feb 4, 2018 at 20:09

My answer is, per your ( or his ) saying, the terror aka the revolution using the benefits of weapons, in order to overthrow the "ruling classes".

But Marx aside ( I was not able to find his own words referring to "strategic change ), Engels later reflected on their actions especially around 1848. You can see his idea here and he said their "tactics" were wrong. For example...from the above

A bourgeoisie split into two monarchist sections adhering to two dynasties, a bourgeoisie, however, which demanded, above all, peace and security for its financial operations, faced with a proletariat vanquished, indeed, but still a constant menace a proletariat round which petty bourgeois and peasants grouped themselves more and more—the continual threat of a violent outbreak, which, nevertheless, offered no prospect of a final solution—such was the situation, as if created for the coup d'état of the third, the pseudo-democratic pretender Louis Bonaparte.

or like this

[Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors. Accordingly, it will occur more seldom in the beginning of a great revolution than in its further progress, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces. These, however, may then well prefer, as in the whole Great French Revolution on September 4 and October 31, 1870, in Paris, the open attack to the passive barricade tactics.]

At least at later age, Marx aside, Engels noticed the use of violence as a trigger to the revolution has changed so much ( to some extent, even unnecessary... )


if you read the entire article, instead of just cherry-picking the juicy part out of context, it seems fairly clear that he meant to contrast revolutionary terror v. counter-revolutionary terror. I.e. we (the revolutionaries) must beat them ( the counter-revolutionaries) at their own game: terror, massacre, etc.

Remember this was 1848, when memories of the French Revolution (which invented "terror", quotes intended) were still relatively fresh.

  • your reply "it's obvious" isn't a good fit for the site. i wasn't hiding anything, and wasn't suggesting an answer either way, tho i definitely lean towards the idea that you're wrong. the article begins "Croatian freedom and order has won the day, and this victory was celebrated with arson, rape, looting and other atrocities."
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 23:58
  • my reply did not use the word "obvious".
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 0:07
  • no you used the term "fairly clear" what is your point?
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 0:08
  • 1
    all of 'em? ;) probably none of them, really. I don't think terror is either good or useful.
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 0:13
  • 1
    me neither, I guess I could have been a little more subtle than "cherry-picking" etc. your question is a good one, and I confess I'm not really sure exactly what Karl had in mind, but whatever it was must be determined in context. unfortunately even reading the whole article carefully doesn't help much.
    – user20153
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 0:18

Really who cares? Is there anyone of note at that time that was such the complete pacifist that they believed in revolution that would have NO violent component, as if the ruling industrialists would just lay down and quit and not hire thugs to defend their excessive assets? Grow up.

There's a vast difference between accepting the possibility or likelihood of violence when people are pushed too far and using it, especially "terrorism" as the main tool to accomplish anything revolutionary. If Marx had said no violence not ever under any circumstances I'd have thought him to be pollyannish. Malcolm X got it right with "by any means necessary" and even that was a pretty mild "threat".

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