‘With one’s back to the wall?’
: A Social Systems Theory Approach to the Comparative Study of Revolutionary Terrorism

  • Florian Edelmann

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This PhD thesis develops a complex, multi-layered conceptual framework and analytical strategy for approaching ‘clandestine political violence’ (della Porta 2013) from a thoroughly communicative perspective. More precisely, the thesis sets out to conceptualise how revolutionary identities are (re)produced in radical ‘discourse communities’ (Apter 1997b) by interpreting socio-political realities, constructing counter-memories, and establishing a semantics of ‘armed struggle’ to legitimise the use of violent means in nonrevolutionary situations and pacified, democratic societies. Its theoretical framework builds on Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory (Luhmann 1995a, 1998, 2002a; Luhmann and Hellmann 1996) as well as on seminal work in social movement studies (Bosi and della Porta 2012; Caiani et al. 2012; della Porta 1995; Zwerman et al. 2000), social semiotics and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1995c; Fairclough et al. 2011; Halliday 1978b, 1985; Wodak 1989, 1996; Wodak and Meyer 2009). The project’s empirical chapters comparatively analyse the writings of two left-wing armed formations in late 20th century Germany and the ways in which these were perceived in the contemporary radical counter-public. Case studies are the ‘2nd of June Movement’ and the ‘Revolutionary Cells’, two German groups ‘in the shadow of the RAF’ (Kraushaar 2006b). A range of leaflets, brochures and selfidentified radical periodicals provide the source material for mapping out the counter-public. Common sense in terrorism studies literature often has it that texts produced by terrorist groups are jargon-ridden, semantically one-dimensional, and purely rhetorical pieces of inwards-directed ideological justification, more auto-propaganda than actual political communication (Cordes 1987a; della Porta 1995; Rapoport 1988). In contrast, the conceptual framework of this thesis argues that meanings, identities, and interpretations of socio-political realities are negotiated in more complex ways within the writings of armed formations. In different ways and to different degrees, even the closed, small-scale social systems of clandestine groups enter into (indirect) conversations with their wider social environment.
Date of Award26 Jan 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorAnwen Elias (Supervisor) & Kamila Stullerova (Supervisor)

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