Time was, terrorism went hand in hand with leftist ideology. To be from the left – a term taken from French parliamentary seating conventions – meant to be against the status quo, and in favor of some form of wealth redistribution, as a means to social and political equality. The first self-identified terrorists, the Russian group Narodnaya Volya, urged a revolution to upend the repressive rule of the Tsars and liberate the peasantry from serfdom. In their view, targeted assassinations were a reasonable way to bring about revolution. Their actions did not, but those of the Bolsheviks did in 1917.
For the remainder of the life of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, much politically motivated violence would be inspired by and supported by the Soviets, their allies, and the Cubans, whose successful revolution came later, in 1959.
The battle for hearts and minds in the last quarter of the twentieth century was refracted through the prism of capitalism, rather than religion. Those who wanted to upend what was, and replace it with what could be, used socialism and social revolution to funnel their impulses. The Italian Red Brigades, the German Red Army Faction and Weatherman (later the Weather Underground) in the United States saw themselves as armed revolutionaries carrying out a just battle with "imperialist" states.
The Cold War, coupled with anti-colonialist movements in mid-century, fueled leftist extremism further.National independence movements in formerly colonized countries often fused nationalist and socialist impulses. Some turned to terrorist tactics to drive home their case. Algerian tactics in the Algerian War of Independence in France were one such example. Palestinian groups who turned to international terrorism to bring attention to their cause were typically secular leftists, as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which hijacked a number of planes in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Leftist Terrorists Lose Heart, and Material Support, following Soviet Collapse
Leftist terrorism collapsed with the Soviet Union and the Cold War in the 1980s. Its recorded demise overlapped the rise of rise of religiously coded revolutionary impulses, epitomized by the 1979 Iranian revolution.
While leftist terrorist attacks demonstrably grew fewer in subsequent years, the end wasn't so simple either. It isn't as if violent leftist radicals simply laid down their arms and grabbed as many Levi jeans as they could on their way out of the revolution.
Rather, the era in which they lived changed. Just as religiously inspired terrorism has come of age in an era of mainstream rise in religiosity, so too was left wing terrorism the extreme expression of mainstream left-wing leanings. That era was over by the 1980s, where in the West, Reagan and Thatcher brought conservatism to the fore and in the Middle East, the Iranian Islamic revolution successfully supplanted an entrenched regime, which no secular leftist movement had been capable of doing.
Leftist terrorists also lost material support following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Kristopher K. Robison, Edward M. Crenshaw and J. Craig Jenkins point out in a 2006 sutdy measuring leftist and Islamist terrorism:
For Leftist terrorism, the Soviet collapse of the early 1990s also changed the geopolitics of international insurgency. The perceived failure of the global socialist program deprived many … Marxist groups of legitimacy and the ability to play on superpower rivalry to mobilize military and political support. (from "Ideologies of Violence: the Social Origins of Islamist and Leftist Transnational Terrorism," Social Forces, 2006)
Some Leftists Become Islamists
The end of the Cold War does not entirely explain what happens to left-leaning violent extremists, however. As Robison, Crenshaw and Jenkins relate, when the socialist justification lost its full force, would-be terrorists had to find new ideologies to legitimate themselves, which may explain the rise of both Islamist and ethno-nationalist claims among terrorist groups.
Additionally, even though Islamist tendencies may appear on their surface more conservative and "right wing" than left, they have some subterranean likeness:
Although Islamist and traditional Leftist ideology may be logically incompatible systems, our analysis indicates their deep kinship at the level of terrorist action. Both spring from the social strains of transitional development and are facilitated by political opportunities associated with increased political rights. Both are likewise spurred by Western military dependency and yet are reduced by foreign investment.
Leftist Energy Funneled into "Single Issue" TerrorismAmong those places where leftist impulses may find violent expression is "single issue terrorism," which seems to refer to "ecoterrorism" more often than it refers to other issue-based prompts to violence. While there is no question that groups like the Animal Liberation Front do harm, it is questionable whether the damage they inflict—primarily to property—should be considered terrorism.
Leftist Terrorism Not a Security Threat
Whatever happened to leftist terrorism, there's little question that it poses only a small threat to collective security. This is accidentally demonstrated in an April, 2001 report prepared for the Department of Energy, Left-wing Extremist: The Current Threat (which can be downloaded from the Department of Energy website). Without wishing to minimize the unnecessary loss of life that leftist terrorism has caused its many victims, readers of the report may be hard pressed to take seriously the report author's efforts to transform small, scattered, relatively impotent groups whose claims far outstrip their ability to fulfill them, into "Terror Network U.S.A." or anywhere else.