The socialist stand on terrorism
The French revolution is a logical place to begin. The revolution theorized “terror” as the stated aim to use violence in order to achieve a political goal. The “terror”, under the rule of the Jacobins – from June 1793 to Jacobin leader Robespierre’s overthrow in July 1794 – was not in opposition to the government, but was an official policy of the government.
In 20th century bourgeois political discourse terrorist tactics have been associated with the anarchist movement, the Irish Republican Army, ETA in the Basque country’s struggle against the Spanish state, the Red Brigade in Italy, the Baader Meinhoff in Germany, the Palestine Liberation Organization and others.
Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, “terrorism” has been associated with Islamism, predominantly identified with Al Qaeda and ISIS.
So how do socialists understand “terrorism”?
Revolution and violence
Let’s rewind back to Marx who addressed the question of the use of violence or force in revolutionary struggles. Marx argued, that in Britain socialist objectives were attainable through the use of general voting rights, which amounted, in the English context of class structure then, to a revolution.
In 1872 in a speech in Holland he stated that “We are aware of the importance that must be accorded to the institutions, customs, and traditions of different countries; and we do not deny that there are countries like America, England (and, if I knew your institutions better, I would add Holland) where the workers can achieve their aims by peaceful means. However true that may be, we ought also to recognise that, in most of the countries on the continent, it is force that must be the lever of our revolutions; it is to force that it will be necessary to appeal for a time in order to establish the reign of labour.”
In continental Europe, the experience carved indelibly in the consciousness of the revolutionary movement, was the bloody repression of the Paris Commune in 1871 by the bourgeois government based in Versailles. In 1871 Marx wrote “We must make clear to the governments: we know that you are the armed power that is directed against the proletariat; we will proceed against you by peaceful means where that is possible and with arms when it is necessary.”
In general, the Marxist position on the use of force or violence in revolutionary struggles can be summed up as follows: we make use of all available, peaceful means, such as elections, but the ruling class will hold on to power by any means necessary, including the use of violence, forcing the revolutionary movement to take up arms to defend itself.
However, Marx also stressed that the revolution is the act of the majority – the working class, the poor the exploited and oppressed, and their allies – not a tiny armed minority acting on behalf of the masses.
An important consideration concerning the use or non-use of force relates to its limits and the degree to which force or violence is used that is, is it intended to establish a regime in which force will or will not be a central and decisive factor.
In recent political history, regimes in which force was a central and decisive factor terrorizing entire societies into submission, were those who represented the interests of the minority elite – oligarchies and the capitalist class – backed by Western military aid, such as the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and the dictatorship of the Saudi Arabian monarchy today. These regimes unleashed “state terrorism” to rule.
The state terrorism of these regimes included the systematic use of terror – torture, extra-judicial killings, the suppression of the media and the right to free assembly. State terrorism can also be carried out by non-state instruments. All these regimes used death squads to conduct extra-judicial killings.
The “war on drugs” carried out by heavily armed state agencies against impoverished and marginalized communities – from African-American communities in the United States to the urban poor barrios in Mexico and the urban poor communities in the Philippines – can also be understood as a form of state terrorism. The stated aim in these cases is to sow terror in these communities. The tactics are universal – heavily armed assault against minor criminals, bodies exhibited on the streets as a deterrent and the inevitable and random casualties suffered by poor communities.
In terms of the degree and the limits of violence used, state terrorism has proven to be the deadliest use of violence.
War and armed struggle
In the context of war and armed struggle – where the use of force and violence is primary – a range of military tactics have been used to weaken and drive back the ‘enemy’ of the occupying army and to weaken the resolve and support of the population in the countries of the occupying forces. This includes blowing up important infrastructure, such as transport and telecommunication systems, assassination of collaborators as a warning to traitors, and ‘bringing the war home’ – back to the countries of the occupation force.
The European resistance movements during WW2 used a range of these tactics to defeat the German occupation.
Anti-imperialist liberation movements who conducted the armed struggle – the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, the Irish Republican Army, the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua – also used these tactics of armed struggle. They were described as “terrorist” (usually by the Western powers) to discredit these movements. In the Philippines the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the New Peoples Army (including their urban partisan units) used and continue to undertake the armed struggle using such tactics.
In all these cases the armed struggle was the strategy to pursue political aims – national liberation, self-determination and the revolutionary transformation of society.
Al Qaeda and ISIS
Islamist terrorism flourishes in situations of war. Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria – all these countries have been invaded or bombed by the Western powers as they deliberately set about destroying secular regimes – Iraq and Libya – and regimes that were not in their control, such as the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
These countries have several common features – they are all Third World countries, with predominantly Muslim populations and all have been targets of Western intervention to bring about ‘regime change’ to promote imperialist interests, including that of Western corporations in oil and the military-industrial complex.
In all these cases Al Qaeda and ISIS have flourished. It is impossible to wreak such death and disaster on these countries through overwhelming military power and not be surprised that disaffected youth respond to Islamist influences.
It’s an open secret that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State or ISIS were the creation of the Western powers as instruments of regime change. This truth has more recently been divulged by a former Australian head of cabinet, John Menadue, who in a recent article writes that Western governments “are the biggest enablers of terrorism today … the evidence is overwhelming”.
Osama bin Laden, founder of Al Qaeda, was funded by the US to bring down the Soviet-backed government of the secular Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (1979-1989).
ISIS is product of US invasion of Iraq and a majority of the ISIS leaders were prisoners in US prisoner of war camps in Iraq. Its predecessors were funded by the US allies including Saudi Arabia and Qatar and it has been heavily supported by Turkey, a NATO member.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the biggest funders of Islamist terrorism in the Middle East. The country is the spiritual home of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam – Wahhabism. It has sent suicide bombers to Iraq and has supplied terrorist groups with funds and foreign fighters.
The Saudi dictatorship is a key Western ally. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration acted to prevent the US Congress accessing papers about the role of Saudi Arabia in the 9/11 attacks. Yet, the United States on a vast scale, together with the United Kingdom, are supplying military hardware to Saudi Arabia. They are supporting or supplying the greatest promoter and funder of terrorism in the world.
Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labor Party leader, is right when he says that “Many experts, including many professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connection between wars our government have supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home.”
Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago and author James Feldman surveyed terrorist attacks 2004-09. They found that 87% were due to the stationing of foreign troops in the Middle East. In 2014 at the Chilcott Inquiry, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI-5, said that the Iraq invasion had “substantially increased the terrorism threat to the UK” by ‘radicalizing’ young people.
Britain, as the former main colonial power, has been covertly or overtly involved in military actions in the Middle East for centuries. It should not be surprised at a violent response when the war is brought back home to London and Manchester.
The rise of the far-right, and Islamaphobia becoming part of the political mainstream, in the West, and Western aerial bombings and Islamist terrorist attacks that indiscriminately kill hundreds of civilians in Muslim countries being crassly and routinely ignored, will only fuel the rise of terrorism.
The West’s ‘war on terror’ is also a propaganda slogan against an abstract enemy. Imperialism uses different reasons to intervene, any where in the world, to defend its interests. In Libya they backed the Islamists against Ghaddafi. These in turn used the weapons that were given to them by the US to kill the US number one operative in Libya.
In Syria the imperialists back different sides, one against the other. In Turkey they back the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The left-wing Kurdistan Workers Party is listed as a terrorist organisation by several Western imperialist powers including the US, Britain, the EU and Australia. The PKK has philosophy of armed self-defence, promotes grassroots democracy and feminism, and came to the aid of the Yezidi minority in Iraq when they were abandoned to ISIS genocide by the the Western-armed forces of the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional governments.
In Afghanistan the imperialists fight the Taliban while supporting other Islamist groups and warlords and also negotiate with the Taliban to join a coalition government.
Islamism and terrorism today is the by-product of the failure of secular projects and democratic movements. While some of these movements adopt a common rhetoric – a world Caliphate harking from Islam’s notion of an international ‘brotherhood’ – they have a different basis, grounded in specific national contexts.
In Mindanao, the rise in Islamist terrorism is rooted in the failure of successive national governments to address the legitimate demands of the Bangsamoro peoples struggle for self-determination. The various split-off groups, both from the MNLF and the MILF, are a result of faltering peace talks leading to a rapidly deteriorating political situation. The ‘Maute group’, self-styled as the Islamic State of Lanao, broke away from the MILF as a result of this impasse, putting forward the demand for secession, as opposed to the MILF support for autonomy.
The Abu Sayyaf group on the other hand are reportedly a creation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to split the MNLF, and the military has now lost control over the group. Similarly, Al Qaeda and ISIS are reactionary organizations, enabled by imperialist interests and proxies for reactionary states such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Some of these groups are also linked to criminal activities to fund their organizations – drugs, kidnap for ransom – and are therefore often connected to local trapos and warlords, as well as corrupt groupings or factions in the military and police forces.
The ‘lone wolf’ type attacks can simply be sick individuals – symptoms of extreme social alienation such as racism and the general social decay in capitalist societies.
As socialists, we need to assess these forces and phenomenon, on the basis of their political demands, their political record, the alliances they form and the class and social interests that they represent.
June 12, 2017